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.