Episode 111 – The Books That Got Me Through January

We’ve made it through the darkest part of the year, in almost every sense.

December and January (closely followed by February – sigh) have the least sunshine of any of the months of the year here in central Ontario, but at least December has Christmas and Diwali lights strung everywhere! January is cold, it’s damp, and it’s grey. For our friends who live in warmer, sunnier climes, it might be difficult to understand just how depressing these months of limited sunshine can be. There is an actual clinical name for the sadness and lethargy that many of us, myself included, feel: S.A.D. (Seasonal Affective Disorder).

In January, the scenery even mid-day often seems to be in black and white – colour is almost completely washed out by the lack of sunshine.

Added to that, this year began with Ontario’s highest daily caseloads of COVID19 to date (at times up to 3000/day), a province-wide “stay at home” edict that will be in effect until at least February 9th, and growing pains in the province’s vaccine distribution process. It occasionally felt like truly dark times.

Thank goodness for Ted, whose sense of humour never wanes, and for our library. Even during the provincial lockdown, the library was able to remain open for contactless pickup, so I could always lose myself in a book.

In the past, I would almost never fail to finish what I’d started reading, even if it wasn’t great, but I no longer feel I have to persevere just because I’m holding it in my hands. There are so many really good books out there; why invest precious time on ones you don’t enjoy?

That said, January’s books were almost all hits. Of course, the opinions here are just mine – you might feel completely differently about them!

(HIT) Albatross, by Terry Fallis (2019)

If you’ve read Terry Fallis’ first two books, Best Laid Plans and The High Road, and fallen in love with his keen political satire, be forewarned that this book is not that. This is a gently humorous send-up of our infatuation with professional athletes, tied up in a package containing golf, a quirky high school athletic coach, teenage romance, the absurdity of the celebrity endorsement industry, and an obsession with fountain pens. Although portions of the book are set in other countries, the setting is 90% Ontario. It was amusing, and I enjoyed it, but it’s not going to leave a lasting ink stain on my heart or mind.

Note: Published near the end of 2019, so the one disconcerting element is the fact that in the book, 2020 and 2021 are “normal”…. but no one could have predicted our current reality (unless they wrote dystopian fiction, which this is definitely not)

(MISS) The Book of Lost Friends, by Lisa Wingate (2020)

I was hoping for something as riveting as Laurence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, given that the book blurb stated that the book “is based on actual “Lost Friends” ads that appeared in Southern newspapers after the Civil War, as newly freed slaves desperately searched for loved ones who had been sold away.” It’s clear that Lisa Wingate has done an impressive amount of research, but unfortunately the voices of black slaves as rendered by a white woman just didn’t ring true for me. It somehow felt like reading Mark Twain or Margaret Mitchell, which was just weird for a book written in 2020. After a few chapters I found that I just could not reconcile that disparity and abandoned the book. In future when reading books about black lives – even fictional ones – I’ll look for those by black authors. Note: the slave stories are tied together by a modern-day narrative about a young white teacher in rural Louisiana trying to inspire her poor multiracial students, but even that part of the story fell flat for me, and I generally love books about teachers.

(HIT) A Question of Betrayal, by Anne Perry (2020)

….because I cannot resist anything written by Anne Perry. This is the second book in her new Elena Standish series, and the story of Elena’s undercover career in M I 6 is moving along nicely. A strong female protagonist, political intrigue in the years just before WWII, beautiful descriptions of Berlin and Trieste, and a struggle between love and loyalty – need I say more?

(HOME RUN) The Company We Keep, by Frances Itani (2020)

This book hooked me right away, with its Chapter One description of a woman determinedly emptying (“down-sizing”) her house with the help of the burly guys in the Re-Store truck. All six main characters, a cross-section of ages and genders, are wonderfully imagined, as is Rico the parrot (you’ll just have to read it now, won’t you?), and the stories they share in their “grief discussion group” run the gamut from funny to touching to tragic. Allam, a Syrian refugee, reminded me vividly of a wonderful Syrian man named Aladeen who was enrolled in the ESL classes that I volunteered with here in Collingwood in 2019, which just made me enjoy the book even more. The Canadian references throughout are a bonus. (Aside: Author Frances Itani holds an Order of Canada.) In my opinion it’s the best kind of fiction, that feels like a slice of real .

(HIT) The Talented Miss Farwell, by Emily Gray Tedrowe (2020)

An engrossing story about a bright and completely unscrupulous young woman who becomes obsessed with possessing fine art, and through her gift for numbers finds an unorthodox way of feeding her obsession. I loved the many ways in which the character continues to justify her actions, even when – predictably – things start to go horribly wrong. I was reminded of a motto from my days working in the finance department of the Halton District School Board: “only people you trust completely can embezzle from you.” A fast-moving, fun read.

(HIT) Red Letter Days, by Sarah-Jane Stratford (2020)

Split between New York City and London England, this book is set in the mid 1950’s during the era of blacklisting suspected communists in the entertainment business. The story centres around a young female screenwriter avoiding a subpoena from HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Committee), an interesting group of American expats, and the creation of a television series for children with – maybe – a hidden agenda. (The series’ producer in the novel is based on the real person Hannah Weinstein, creator of The Adventures of Robin Hood.) An easy, entertaining read…. and of course there’s some romance too.

(HIT) The Good German, by Dennis Bock (2020)

In this alternate history, an otherwise unremarkable German man succeeds in assassinating Adolf Hitler. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make things better in the way he hoped, and evil just continues under new leadership. This “different” WWII’s effect on Canada as imagined by the author is especially gripping to read about. The altered events of the war years are no less horrific than the real ones were; in fact for Canada they are worse. The post-war timeline is set in the fictional Ontario town of Port Elizabeth (clearly Oakville, from hints throughout), providing an eerie portrait of what life could have been like for my family had things turned out differently. I enjoyed the focus on individual characters as opposed to the historical events. It may be fiction, but the novel is nonetheless a thought-provoking look at how societies recover from war, the scars that people carry, the lessons they do (or don’t) learn, and how good intentions do not always yield good results.

(HOME RUN) Ayesha at Last, by Uzma Jalaluddin (2018)

The blurbs all compared this novel to Pride and Prejudice, if that were set in a modern Muslim family. While the Elizabeth/Darcy analogy is fine as far as it goes, I found this book so much more engaging for being relevant to life right now in Canada. Each of the characters reminded me of someone I know. Slyly tongue-in-cheek, funny, heartwarming – everything a good novel should be.

(HIT) Squeeze Me, by Carl Hiaasen (2020)

If you’re done reading satire that skewers Donald Trump (code name “Mastodon”) and his sycophants, then maybe this isn’t for you. But, if you’re not quite through mocking him yet, enjoy Carl Hiaasen doing it within an absurd story about the mysterious disappearance of a socialite from a fundraising gala, lots of Keystone Cops variety action, politically motivated cover-ups, and plenty of sarcasm, as is always Hiaasen’s style. My favourite character was Angie, the female wildlife wrangler, although the hapless thugs-for-hire Uric and Prince Paladin(are you curious now?) and the cohort of Secret Service agents are also a hoot. (And OMG the “tanning bed tester” on page 182 !!) One caution: Hiaasen, writing this book in early 2020 assumed that Covid19 would be under control before Trump’s presidency ended, so some of the references to the pandemic feel a bit strange, knowing what we know now in 2021.

That’s it for this month. I hope you’re all finding things that give you pleasure during these strange times and that, if you follow our blog, you don’t mind too much that for now it has turned into a book site. Travel will eventually resume, and I’ll go back to sharing photos and destinations.

We’ve just started getting more significant snowfalls, which will characterize most of February here, and will keep me indoors even more. Thankfully, there’s another pile of library books waiting.

2 comments

  1. Thank you – again!., I sent it on to Eddy Nd Susan. Both of them read Fallis. Susan taught his twin brothers kids! I know what you mean about grey days; I don’t have to close my blinds. Miss you

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