Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Winter Break Reading List

I've read a fairly wide variety of books over the past month - liked some; others less so.

Royal Holiday by Jasmine Guillory

This romantic comedy is really just pure fun.  While it draws on characters from Guillory's prior books it is absolutely not necessary to have read them first in order to appreciate this one.

Vivian Forest, an American woman in her fifties, is asked to join her daughter Maddie on an unusual Christmas business trip.  Maddie is a stylist and has asked to fill in for someone in styling a member of the royal family (who is clearly meant to be Meghan Markle).  So Vivian, who has rarely left the country before, is whisked away in first class style to spend Christmas in a cottage outside London owned by the royal couple.

While there Vivian meets Malcolm Hudson who is the Queen's private secretary.  Romance develops between the two as he takes it upon herself to show her around (where she has a humorous meeting with the Queen in the royal stables).

After Christmas, and on a whim, Malcolm invites Vivian to stay with him in London over the New Year.  She does this and their relationship deepens - to the point where they have to figure out what they can do about it since they live on opposite sides of the ocean.

The book is pure fluff, but well written, intelligent and funny.  If that's the kind of escape you're seeking, I recommend it.

When we Meet Again by Kristin Harmel

I'm not sure how historically accurate this book is, but to the extent there is some truth to it, it certainly covered a piece of history of which I was not aware.

Emily has had a lonely upbringing - her father deserted the family when she was a child and started a new relationship with a woman who did not want to include Emily in their lives, her mother was killed in a car accident when she was 17, and her paternal grandmother who took care of her after that has recently died.  She also has moved from one disastrous relationship to another since abruptly leaving what may have been the love of her life at 17.  She has always focused on her career so when she is laid off from her journalism job she really at loose ends.

The mystery of Emily's past starts to unfold when an anonymous person sends her a painting of a woman she recognizes as her deceased grandmother - together with a written note that says only "he always loved her".  This sets her on a quest to find out who sent her the painting, and who it was that always loved her grandmother (who, to Emily's knowledge, had also been abandoned by her husband at a young age).

In alternating chapters we slowly learn of her grandmother's past - she lived in a poor farming family in Florida.  During World War II German prisoners of war were sent to work on farms like hers (this is the part that I think is historically accurate, but which I never knew about).  Her grandmother falls in love with one of the prisoners - and her feelings are reciprocated.  However he's not free and when the war is over is shipped back home - promising to return.

As the story unfolds we learn why Emily's grandparents were never reunited - and we see her repair her relationships with her father and her first love.

I don't want to give too much away, but the story while a bit far-fetched was intriguing.

Olive Again by Elizabeth Strout

This is a sequel of sorts to Strout's book, Olive Kitteridge. While it is not necessary to have read this book, or The Burgess Boys, there are overlapping characters so it does add some depth to this book.  While described as a novel, it reads more like a collection of interconnected short stories which take place in the small seaside town of Crosby, Maine.  Kitteridge appears at least indirectly in most of the stories.  She is an aging and opinionated woman and her affect on people varies widely - some love her, others don't.  Personally I'm not a huge fan of hers - I find it hard to sympathize with her idiosyncratic and well entrenched views.  I can't say I bonded with any of the other characters either - just as you started to get to know them the story moved on and you never saw them again.  While this book was critically acclaimed, I could take it or leave it.

Trust Exercise by Susan Choi

This book was just plain weird - and to be honest, even after mulling it over for several days, I'm not sure I understood it.  First of all, the almost 600 page book is only divided into 3 chapters.  So sometimes that makes it hard to follow the thread.

In the first section we meet Sarah and David who are high school students at an elite arts school.  They fall deeply in love, but through a series of misunderstandings and differing attitudes (not to mention a socioeconomic divide) their relationship falls apart rather quickly.

Through the whole first chapter we follow their time in high school - as well as their relationships with the other cast of characters, including other students, teachers (especially the flamboyant and unconventional, Mr. Kingsley) and some visiting students and teachers from England.

In the second chapter we learn that the whole first chapter may have been fictionalized by Sarah who is now a novelist.  This chapter is written from the perspective of one of her former friends (though her name is not mentioned in chapter 1 - a pseudonym is used).  This friend has returned to her home town and has befriended David which prompts her to track down Sarah and bring her back to town to see a play which he is directing and which was written by the British teacher that visited all those years ago.  It's not clear to me what the friend wants to accomplish by doing this.

The third chapter is from the perspective of a young woman many years later who was raised by adoptive parents and is seeking out her mother.  I thought I knew who the mother was (I won't share my guesses here lest it give away too much), but honestly I'm not certain.

I kept reading because I was interested enough to want to figure out how this story would unfold - but in the end I'm still not sure I got the answers...

If you're interested, make sure you leave yourself lots of time to read this book so you can flip back and forth to try to connect the dots.  I read an e-book and may have been happier with a hard copy that would have made that process easier.

Mourning Has Broken: Love, Loss and Reclaiming Joy by Erin Davis

This is a memoir by Erin Davis, who was an extremely popular host of a Toronto morning show.  In 2015 her seemingly healthy 24 year old daughter died in her sleep just after celebrating her first mother's day.

Davis gives a very honest account of how she heard about the death, how she coped in the immediate aftermath and how she and her husband put the pieces of their lives back together, very slowly and over time.

At times this book was exceedingly sad - after all it is an account by a mother who has lost her only child.  At other times it leaves you with hope for humanity - she was often treated with immense kindness by both friends and strangers.  Though, she also saw the worst in humanity - sometimes it was by well-meaning people who just said the wrong thing (she particularly hated the "at least..." comments and did not find them at all comforting).  Sometimes it was by truly vile people who should really have kept their mouths (or e-mails) firmly shut.

I think this is an important read for anyone, but particularly if you know someone who has lost a child.  It gives very practical guidance on how to navigate this very sensitive situation.

As an aside, I love the title - such a good play on the word Mourning by a former Morning Show host.  I applaud Davis for her courageousness in sharing her journey and hope that she continues to find joy where she can.

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