Episode 140 – Catching up on book reviews

A Facebook acquaintance reminded me today that I hadn’t posted a reading list in a while, and she was absolutely right!

The last book blog I did was on August 21st, which means I’ve read a TON of books since then.

Only to Sleep, by Lawrence Osborne

Oh how I’ve missed gumshoe Philip Marlowe since his creator’s death, so I was thrilled to see a new author taking up the challenge of continuing the saga. This book was absolutely, perfectly, exactly the way I would have pictured Philip Marlowe’s retirement if Raymond Chandler himself had written it.

Ice Lake, by John Farrow

Who knew that the area around quiet little Hudson Quebec would provide such fertile ground for murder and intrigue? And how have I missed this wonderful Canadian author all these years? An intelligent, gripping plot line, with the added bonus of familiar settings. The main character, Detective Emile Cinq-Mars, is the perfect Canadian version of Georges Simenon’s Maigret – a truly decent family man committed to solving crime. The really neat thing about this book for me, though, is that the author (real name Trevor Ferguson) is a friend and former neighbour of my best friend who lives in the actual Hudson! The book is part of a series to which I’ll definitely return.

Perfect, by Rachel Joyce

An accident seen through the eyes of a young boy acts as the springboard to launching a mesmerizing story about family, friendship, unscrupulous behaviour, guilt, grief, and the redemptive power of love. Wonderfully touching.

The Music Shop, by Rachel Joyce

For anyone who believes in the power of music and love, here’s a beautiful affirmation. For anyone who has ever doubted it, read this and become a believer. Quirky music shop owner Frank’s descriptions of familiar (and soon to be familiar) pieces of music often brought me to tears (sometimes of laughter, too). A lovely, lovely book.

The Stranger’s Wife, by Anna-Lou Weatherly

Riveting and somewhat scary. The idea that someone you share your life with can have an entirely separate life and identity is pretty terrifying. When I picked this up I didn’t realize it was part of a series – it certainly stands alone just fine.

When We Were Orphans, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Protagonist Christopher Banks may be a famous world-class detective, but his first person narrative comes across as supercilious, self-satisfied, condescending, and outright priggish. Bizarrely, that’s part of the charm of this book…. travelling through England and Shanghai with this pompous child/man as he recalls his parents’ “abduction” and goes about trying to solve it.

Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Wow. Medical science and morality collide, told from a most unique perspective – that of the “science project”. What I love so much about Kazuo Ishiguro is that his books are never formulaic. Each novel is so different from all his others that you could imagine them being written by completely different people, but his writing is always beautiful, and his perspectives surprising and insightful.

The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro

If you’re a fan of Downton Abbey, reading this book might just make you feel as if you are inside Mr. Carson’s head. The musings, observations, and memories of Stevens, the perfect butler of Darlington Hall, give a real insight into England in the years bracketing the second World War. Although it is now 1956, and the Hall has been bought by a rich American, Stevens himself is still firmly standing in a prior era, with its formal rules and an inherent respect for (and subservience to)the peerage that makes allowances for almost any indiscretion or character flaw. Is he loyal, or just oblivious? Lacking completely in empathy or just self-absorbed? Either way, his reminiscences will make you stop and think about how we react to what we “know” about ourselves and each other.

The foreword by Salman Rushdie sets the tone for readers who might not be familiar with the reasons why this book won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Prize or no, it is a fascinating read, written in beautiful formal prose, that nonetheless manages to capture both an era and the reader’s heart.

The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig

A wonderful, thought-provoking read. So your life isn’t the way you imagined it? Try the alternatives. In the limbo between life and death, there might be a way to see the possibilities you overlooked. I’ll let the quotes intrigue you:

“You don’t have to understand life. You just have to live it.”

“Sometimes regrets aren’t based on facts at all. Sometimes regrets are just …. a load of bullshit.”

The Widow, by Fiona Barton

Too good to spoil with details: read it for the great characters and lots of psychological insight into the policeman, the crime reporter, the perpetrator, and the perpetrator’s subservient partner.

The Child, by Fiona Barton

After reading The Widow, I was ready for another great detective story, with intrepid reporter Kate Waters again doing just as much of the heavy lifting as the police. There’s a terrific twist at the end, too !

The Paris Library, by Janet Charles Skeslien

Set in the actual American Library in Paris during World War II, this is a wonderful historical novel about the power of libraries and the way that books can unite and comfort. At the same time, it provides an honest look into what makes people act the way they do – both when they are good to each other, and when they are not.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston

I picked up this book solely because it was the favourite of Odile, the main character in the wonderful novel The Paris Library, that I had just finished. Honestly, had it not been for the foreword by Mary Helen Washington to put the novel’s historical importance into context, I would not have finished it. It felt as dated as Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer – a book to study and dissect as opposed to enjoy.

Together We Will Go, by J. Michael Straczynski

How do you rate a book about a group of suicidal people planning to end it all together by driving a refurbished old bus off a cliff after an epic road trip? Reading this was disturbing , enlightening, sad, funny…. Just wow.

Brick Lane, by Monica Ali

I admit a real propensity for books about the immigrant experience, maybe because I am only one generation removed from it myself. Brick Lane is a fascinating (I know I use that word a lot, but it’s the one that best explains my wide-eyed wonder while reading) insight into the lives of a Muslim Bangladeshi immigrant family living in the Bethnal Green area of London from the 1980’s, through to the aftermath of the September 11 2001 attacks on NYC.

Tuscan Daughter, by Lisa Ruchon

Beatrice, the Tuscan Daughter of the title, is a peasant girl who dreams of being an artist, at a time when only men have that privilege. Left alone and impoverished on her parents’ small olive farm through brutal circumstances, she is forced to become resourceful, daring, and courageous ways she could never have imagined. Why shouldn’t she by chance rub up against the likes of DaVinci, Michelangelo, and Macchiaveli? After all, this is Florence in the first years of the 1500s. Anything is possible.

I was enthralled by the reimagining of Florence’s great artists, and the descriptions of the city and its culture.

Juliet Was A Surprise, by Bill Gaston

I rarely read short stories, but when I do it’s a treat to find Canadian-themed ones.

This collection, all set in and around British Columbia, is full of atmosphere, mystery, emotion … and great twists. Each tale either forces or cajoles you into taking multiple points of view. What a great way to spend an afternoon of reading!

The Day I Fell Off My Island, by Yvonne Bailey-Smith

Pg 380. “Mi not proud of what mi did do, but it nuh someting me can change. Yuh can either accept it, or yuh can let it nyam you up, but you kyaan change it, girl.”

Taking place in the 1960’s and 70’s, and with much of the dialogue written in Jamaican patois, this book is a testament to individual strength and the power of love. Yvonne Bailey-Smith writes an honest, personal tale reflecting not only the immigrant experience in London England in the 60’s and early 70’s, but also the nostalgia for “home” that permeates human existence.

Once Upon A Wardrobe, by Patti Callaghan Henry

Pg 15: “We must, absolutely must, find out where Narnia came from.”

And that’s really the crux of this wonderful book. If you were ever enchanted by C.S.Lewis magical world just through the wardrobe, then you will absolutely fall in love with this book. Just make sure you have a box of tissues ready for the final chapter.

As soon as I finished reading, I knew I would need to find Becoming Mrs. Lewis, Patti Callaghan’s story of Joy Davidman, the letter-writing fan who became C.S. Lewis wife. I had to wait a few weeks for it to be available at our wonderful local library, but I’m glad I did.

Aqua Alta, Fatal Remedies, The Girl of His Dreams, Through a Glass Darkly, and A Sea of Troubles – all by Donna Leon

Recommended by a friend who was travelling in Venice this year, and was reminded while there of a wonderful series of detective novels set in that city. These are terrifically entertaining reads, featuring the all-too-human (and humane) Commissario Guido Brunetti, his patient subordinate Vianello, and the ever fascinating Signorina Elettra, the “office assistant” with mysterious abilities to ferret information out of just about any agency using her computer skills and charm.

Because my local library does not carry the entire series, I began with #5 and then skipped to #8, #10, #15 and #17, but each novel stands alone beautifully.

American Appetites, by Joyce Carol Oates

A story about a stupid, stupid man, an avoidable tragedy, and the hubris of the rich….American appetites indeed. Joyce Carol Oates’ story held the same kind of fascination as watching a train wreck: you know you shouldn’t be a witness to the private anguish of the novel’s characters, but you just can’t stop looking.

A Case of Bier, by Mary Daheim

Meh. I had high hopes, since I loved Mary Daheim’s Alpine Advocate series, but this first foray into her B&B series left me uninspired. I think, as a Canadian, I found the constant stereotyping of Canada grating, if mostly well-intentioned. The American stereotypes weren’t all that pleasing either. Not a series I’ll continue.

The Apollo Murders, by Chris Hadfield

Is there anything Chris Hadfield can’t do, and do well? Pilot, astronaut, speaker, mentor, musician, and author of non-fiction, children’s books, and now a really riveting mystery in the style of Tom Clancy. This is a murder set in “alternate history”, but Hadfield makes it seem oh so plausible. I especially liked the notes at the end that detailed which elements used in the novel were real. What a great fiction debut!

Becoming Mrs Lewis, by Patti Callaghan Henry

This fictionalized account of the real relationship between C.S.Lewis and Joy Davidman, as it progressed from correspondence through meeting and eventually to marriage, was fascinating and (from the long list of sources at the back of the book) well researched. I especially liked the excerpts from Joy’s poetry at the beginning of each chapter. I was unfamiliar with her work before reading this book, but am now inspired to explore her sonnets.

Conception, by Albert Samaha (non-fiction)

Not an easy book to read, but absolutely riveting and worthwhile. While ostensibly a family biography, it is densely filled with historical facts about the Philippines, and the effects of both Spanish and American colonialism on that archipelago. I found that at the end of each chapter I needed to put the book down and digest the things I’d learned. Honestly, sometimes the more I read about “western” politics have manipulated other countries, the more amazed I am that world conflicts are not even worse than theyare.

The Wrong End of the Telescope, by Rabih Alameddine

One of my favourites this year. Comforting and disturbing. Introspective and full of world view. Gentle and brutal. Funny and heart-rending. What a wonderful book, with a terrific narrator in the 60-ish year old trans Arab-American doctor, Mina, who heads to the island of Lesbos to offer medical aid in the predominantly Syrian refugee camps there. The book does not shy away from addressing the challenges faced by refugees, nor from those faced by the countries who take them in, but, by cleverly intertwining those issues with a couple of very personal stories, it becomes a lesson in compassion.

Portal, by Jaqlyn von Eger

When I told new friend and temporary neighbour (we’re moving, not she and her husband) that we would be in Egypt next spring, she loaned me the young adult novel that SHE had written! I knew from conversations that she was Oxford educated, had taught physical education at an English public school, had worked as a legal assistant after immigrating to Canada, and was an Egyptophile, but I had no idea that she was also an author.

The book itself is a fun adventure around ancient Cairo and the Giza Plateau that takes place when 3 modern day early teens are transported 4000 years into the past while exploring one of the pyramids at midnight. Magic indeed.

What makes the book special is not just the characters, named after the author’s godchildren, but the extensive research that is evident in each fact revealed about the construction of the pyramids and the Sphinxes. There’s mystery, peril, young love, and enough action to keep both young and adult readers engaged… and you might just learn something at the same time.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s