The Last Books of 2018

Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis
I have conflicting thoughts about this one. I didn't like it, there's no question about that, but the vivid images, good and bad, that it planted in my head feel permanent. I have to give the author credit for drawing me in and making me feel like a part of the story whether I wanted to be or not. That's good writing. In this book's world, dogs are given human consciousness, which seems to burden them with the combined negative traits of both dogs and humans. There are parts that are touching, but also parts that are heartless and cruel. Dogs kill each other in bloody, violent scenes, plotting and conniving just like the worst of human beings. Not an enjoyable read at all, but maybe I just missed the point.

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
Well this was a nice surprise! It sat on my shelf for 10 years while I tried to avoid looking at it. I disliked the movie, so didn't want to read the book. Will I ever learn? It's one of the titles on my Guilt List, the books I feel I should have read at some point in my life but never did, so I made it my goal to read it in 2018. I was about 50 pages in when I realized, holy cow, this is good! Thackeray's writing (which I'd never read before) is nothing short of sparkling. He's smart, funny, wry and easy to read. It's a lengthy book, but I didn't at any point become tired or bored with it. On the contrary, I found it quite enjoyable. The things that made me dislike the movie proved to be Hollywood's usual over-emphasis on the negative and the unpleasant. The book is much more balanced and allows you to make up your own mind about various characters. I'm so glad I took the plunge and read this. Truly great writing.

Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher
This is my second reading of this novel and I liked it even more this time than the last. I'd forgotten how comforting Pilcher's books are. The characters care about each other and love the places they live. There's something warm and soothing in that. The plot had a couple of holes, but I liked the characters so well, and the setting, that the imperfections didn't matter. Winter Solstice tells the stories of an eclectic group of people who end up in the same place at the same time as Christmas approaches. As they form relationships and learn each others secrets, the reader falls into the story without even realizing it's happening. To come to the end is to leave a place you'll miss and people you'll wish you could stay in touch with. I think I'm going to read another Rosamunde Pilcher this winter. I look forward to the sheer comfort of her writing. 

Mr. Dickens and His Carol by Samantha Silva 
This is my second reading, but this time I enjoyed it. Last year it didn't appeal to me at all. Weird, isn't it? It's a fictional tale about Dickens and the events leading up to his writing of A Christmas Carol. There's a lot about his wife and family, and his relationships with his publishers, but it is fiction so it's hard to know which parts may be true and which not. That's the frustrating part of fiction about real people. Nevertheless it was nice story for the Christmas season.

A Cup of Christmas Tea by Tom Hegg
I've loved this for years. My previous post about it is here.

A Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas 
Another one I've enjoyed for a long time and try to read every year. Previous post here.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
My favourite Christmas book ever. So much better than any of the movies. A previous post for this one can be found here.

A Christmas Promise by Anne Perry
I'm iffy on this one. Parts of it are lovely, and touching, but parts of it drag on and make you wish something would just happen. Then when things do begin to happen, it rolls along quickly and changes the tone of the book considerably. After a beginning of little-match-girl-like poignancy there's a violent murder, illegal opium dealing and a hooker. So it didn't turn out to be the story I expected, but it had its moments.

October's Reading

Farther Afield by Miss Read - Miss Read breaks her ankle, leaving her dependent on friends and neighbours for help. She stays with her friend, Amy, for a while, and ends up joining her on an unexpected vacation to Greece when Amy's husband is unable/unwilling to go. Much of this one takes place outside of Fairacre, which is a change, but a nice one. I think I have only a couple left in the Fairacre series. I hate to see it end, but the Thrush Green series awaits. I try to avoid series generally, but these books are absolutely delicious.

The Break by Katherena Vermette -  The "break" is a large empty lot in the city of Winnipeg where a young Aboriginal girl is beaten and raped. The story is about her family and how they relate to her and to one another in the aftermath. As in all families, things are complicated and healing is hard to come by, but it does come. Full of strong female characters, vivid, heart-breaking and heart-warming, this story will stay with you. It doesn't feel like fiction, and I expect it's all too real for many women. A must read.

If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino - a wonderful, unique reading experience. It begins with "The Reader" getting ready to read the book. He reads it and finds that there is a problem with the copy he has. He goes back to the bookstore only to find the "Other Reader" has had the same problem. They get new books that they think will continue the story they began in the last one, but alas it is a new beginning altogether. Things continue along this vein, with each new beginning effortlessly reeling you in. "The Reader" and "The Other Reader" set out to get to the bottom of this conundrum, developing a romantic relationship as they work. It's great fun to read, but it will get in your head a bit and have you questioning why you read and how and whether it matters. This is a literary experiment gone right and I loved it.

The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene - It took me many longs months of reading this in small increments to get through it. It's one of those science books that is supposed to be written for non-scientists, but this non-scientist got seriously bogged down in the middle chapters. I was, though, sort of able to follow a basic thread of thought through it and I learned a lot and had my mind blown by some of it. I love reading about how the world works, from the quantum realm to the cosmic. I wouldn't be able to explain the information to anyone else, but I do enjoy taking it in. This one is well written and is put together in such a way that when I got lost, in just a few paragraphs he would take me back to something more general and familiar to help me find my way again. This is fascinating stuff. 

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles - In the early years of the Russian revolution, 30 yr old Count Rostov is convicted of being a "Former Person" whose loyalty cannot be counted upon, and  sentenced to a life of house arrest at the Metropol Hotel in Moscow. The book takes us through the next three decades of his life within the confines of the hotel, as he finds a way to become a person of purpose, develops relationships with the employees and guests, and becomes a father figure to a child unexpectedly left in his care. It has to be said that imprisonment in a luxury hotel is far from the unspeakable hardship millions of other Russian people suffered in labor camps, so I couldn't work up a lot of sympathy for the Count on that front, but I did admire him and come to like him. In the face of losing his freedom, he didn't wallow in self-pity but instead set about making the most of what he had left and trying to be of some use to others. A few times it felt like things were coming a little too easy for him, but it did make for a good read. And oh, the writing - it's nothing short of sparkling and had me reading the same lines over and over just to take the phrasing in again. It was a fresh, creative concept for a story, with  quirky characters and luminous writing. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch by Alexander Solzhenitsyn - I read this immediately after A Gentleman in Moscow because I wanted to remind myself of the reality of Stalin's Russia. He was a ruthless dictator who killed millions for something as simple as saying the wrong thing, and who deliberately starved many more millions to death. His labour camps were places where people were dehumanized by brutal conditions and treatment. Many never got out, dying of starvation, freezing to death, or being worked beyond what their bodies could stand. A book like A Gentleman in Moscow can make you forget all that but I don't want to forget. Ivan Denisovitch lived that prison camp life for his ten year sentence. He lived in deplorable conditions, with insufficient food that was barely fit for human consumption, and with people aiming guns at him all day. The physical and mental torment would be enough to cause most to despair, but Ivan kept going, kept hoping his sentence would finish in 2 years and he'd go home, thought he knew even that was a long-shot because they could just arbitrarily decided to add another 10 or 25 years to his sentence with no explanation. This was one of the first books out of Russia that showed the truth about the prison camps, which made Solzhenitsyn not just a brilliant writer, but a hero, a very brave one, who exposed the truth. Everybody should read this so no one ever forgets the horrific crimes against humanity committed by Stalin and the communist party. 

A Summary of September's Reading

The Curate's Awakening by George MacDonald - I discovered George MacDonald years ago when I read one of his children's books. Later I learned that C.S. Lewis considered MacDonald one of his major influences and that pushed me to search out more of his work. I love the stories he tells and the language he uses to tell them, but this one stands out for it's theology. Some of G.M.'s books can be preachy, but this one is full of love - what love is, how to live it, and how it is the very basis of Christianity. This book took me back to the basics of my faith, reminding me that no matter what else I do or say, it is only the love I share that reflects the life of Christ in me and draws people to Him.

Mrs. Mike by Benedict and Nancy Freedman - I loved this amazing story. Mrs. Mike is a young girl from Boston who marries a member of the R.C.M.P. and moves to the far north to live a very different kind of life than she is used to. It may not be great writing, but the story is based on an actual person who lived that life and it is worth reading. In fact I think it's one of those books that should be read, maybe in high school as a hearty dose of reality before heading out into the world. If ever a book could help a person step back and get a better perspective on life, this would be it. Highly recommended.

The House We Grew Up In by Lisa Jewell - I'm finding it hard to put this one into words. The basic plot has a family living in a charming little house in the Cotswolds, seemingly happy and well-adjusted, but with something feeling just a bit off. It moves on to the mother's hoarding obsession, the break-up of the marriage when Mom has an affair with the neighbour lady, and the four kids growing up with lots of emotional baggage to complicate their own lives. Actually one of them doesn't grow up but you'll want to read the details about that yourself. It all sounds slightly preposterous, but the thing is, this family felt real to me. There is plenty of dysfunction in my own family and though the circumstances are completely different, I recognized the fear and denial, the silent ignoring of things that should be faced and talked about, and the emotional fallout from years of not dealing with anything.

I found the book well-written and the characters well-constructed. It hit me hard, and maybe that's what I liked about it, but I thought it was very good. 

Always Looking Up by Michael J. Fox - It wasn't quite what I was expecting but I did enjoy it. I was interested in seeing how he handles life with Parkinson's Disease while still keeping a positive outlook. I don't have Parkinson's but I do have Fibromyalgia, a condition that has changed my life in a thousand ways, and I was interested in hearing how he copes with it all.  He talks about the difficult decision to leave his tv series, his subsequent involvement in politics, his Fox Foundation's efforts to raise money for PD research, his family and his faith. His outlook on life is encouraging; he sums it up in the very bold statement that he believes Parkinson's has given him and his family far more than it has taken away.

Village Affairs by Miss Read - Picking up one of Miss Read's books feels like going home. After reading the previous books in the Fairacre series, I feel I know the people and their quirks, the village itself and the surrounding countryside. In this one the town is alarmed to hear rumours of the school closing, in particular Miss Read herself who is the schoolmistress and must now consider a future elsewhere.

Catching Up

I've been looking at the list of books I've read this year and feeling a bit guilty about the rather large number I've neglected to say anything about. I feel I should at least say if I liked them or not. So here is a line or two about each one, and I'll try to do better next year.

Evangeline by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (re-read) - I love this. It's beautifully written, easy to read and an amazing story about the expulsion of the Acadian people in 1755. Every time I hear the first line, "This is the forest primeval...", I am transported to another time and place.

The Day The Falls Stood Still by Cathy Marie Buchanan - It was interesting while I was reading it, but I don't remember much about it now.

How To Read Slowly by James Sire (re-read) - helps you get more out of the books you read. He tells you what to look for and how to evaluate what you're reading. Very good, very helpful.

All Our Worldly Goods by Irene Nemirovsky - I read this early in the year and I remember only that I found it disappointing,

Emily of New Moon by Lucy Maud Montgomery - not my favourite LMM but still charming as all her books are.

La Bella Lingua by Dianne Hales - This is an ode to the Italian language. The author thinks it is the most beautiful language in the world and gushes accordingly. Lots of interesting stories from history, and about cuisine, famous people, literature, and other things I can't remember now. An enjoyable read. 

Notes from a Blue Bike by Tsh Oxenreider - I didn't enjoy this one. I felt I was being preached at about how to live properly.

The President's Hat by Antoine Laurain - The French President leaves his hat at a restaurant, where a man who can't believe his luck picks it up and takes it home. Then he loses it, someone else finds it, etc. The hat has a unique effect in the life of each person who possesses it, usually positive as I recall. A fun read. 

The Wings of the Dove by Henry James - this is considered the most difficult of his books, and it certainly is a challenge to read. It is so worth it though. You can analyze the characters and the plot forever, never really feeling you've come to the end of what you can get out of it. I found it mentally exhilarating.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See - I enjoyed this one. Well written, an unusual plot,  and it took me inside a culture about which I knew nothing. I found some of the things the characters did strange, but that's half the fun of reading stories set in different times and places. A good story.

The Dance of Time by Michael Judge - this is about how we came to measure the passing of time the way we currently do. Some fascinating facts and stories. Interesting.

Bleak House by Charles Dickens - Loved it. Every Dickens book I've picked up has been a wonderful reading experience. I love the era, the setting, his characters, his writing style, his humour, his compassion, and the social and political impact he's trying to have on the world he was writing for. He had a lot to say, and I'm glad I get to read it.

The Keepers of the House by Shirley Ann Grau - I can't remember much about this book. It won a Pulitzer in 1965 and I see I gave it 4 stars on Goodreads so I must have found something profound in it. It's a family saga set in the deep south and I think the plot was a good one. I probably didn't make an emotional connection with the characters and that's why it didn't have a lasting impact on me.

Emily Davis by Miss Read - I love all Miss Read's books. If you've never tried them, you are missing out. Find the first one in the Fairacre series and see if you don't quickly become addicted.

Tyler's Row by Miss Read - Another quiet, homey read with warm, wonderful characters.

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky - What can I say? His books give you a lot to think about and leave you analyzing his, and your own, thoughts and behavior long after you've read them. I feel like I'm obligated to read them because they are held in such high regard. I'm always glad I did, even if I am somewhat relieved to finish them. The Russian characters with their roller-coaster emotions are a bit over the top for me, but I accept that this is probably a cultural thing that I may never completely understand. This book, like all the great books by the great authors, needs to be studied, or at least read slowly and pondered to really hear what he's saying about good and evil, faith and family, and love. I didn't give it the time it deserves.

Mrs. Queen Takes the Train by William Khun - This was a fun look at what might happen if the Queen decided to go AWOL and a handful of her employees frantically tried to locate her before the press got wind of it. It was enjoyable to read, but as always with fiction about real people, you can't take any of it seriously. Who knows what really goes on in Her Majesty's head? I have a fascination for the monarchy so I liked this novel.

The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy - It's Thomas Hardy. How could I not like it? His writing is exquisite, his characters are wonderful, and the setting always makes me want to move to England  (19th century England) immediately. As is usual with Hardy, nobody really gets what they want in the end, but that's part of the Hardy experience. Loved it.

Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin - Wow. This was a brutal reading experience. It's well written, a really good story with characters so vivid it feels like a memoir more than a novel. The brutality is in how people treat other people, and worse than reading it is knowing that life was, and still is for some people, very much like this. It hurt to read, but I needed to know. 

The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams - I read this only because I was tired of not having read it when it's on every list of must-read books I've ever seen. It was easy to read, funny in places and weird. And I'm pretty sure I missed the point entirely.

Great Village by Mary Rose Donnelly (re-read) - a wonderful story, set in small town Nova Scotia, about two women adjusting to age and making the best of whatever life brings their way. The location is really another main character and I love it when the author does that. Very, very good.

"Life After Life"

Life After Life by Jill McCorkle

What an interesting novel. So interesting that when I came to the end I felt there were things I had missed, and I read it again from the beginning. These aren't just characters, they are people, people with real stories. But let me back up a bit.

It begins with Joanna, a young woman who sits with dying patients and does what she can to ease the transition for the patient and their family members. Sometimes this takes place in the patient's home, but mostly it's in the retirement/nursing home that is the main setting for this book.

The residents in the retirement section are all able to look after themselves fairly well, and when they can no longer do that they move into the nursing section. The stories of residents and workers, and one little neighbourhood girl, and how they came to be there wind together with more and more connections revealing themselves as you go. Past and present are equally relevant to the narrative, which is far more intense than you expect for a book in this setting. And I was right, I had missed some things that I didn't see until the second reading.

I'll warn you that there's a lot of less-than-polite language. The f-word is prevalent, and one of the chapters is quite raunchy. Sometimes I can't get past all that, but in this book it didn't seem to be used for shock value or as a mask for an inadequate vocabulary. The words are used in intense situations of anger or hopelessness and the raunchy bits are a cynical young woman remembering a past she's ashamed of. Parts of it are bleak, but there is also grace and goodness and beauty. 

The characters are vibrantly real, all completely unique and as complicated as living through decades of  joy and tragedy can make them. I think they are people you might like to meet.

"Sixpence House"

Sixpence House by Paul Collins

Paul Collins followed his dream and moved his family to the village of Hay-on-Wye in Wales. Hay-on-Wye is known as the “town of books” because it is a tiny village of less than 2000 people with more than 40 book shops. 

I was interested to learn that most of the shops deal with antiquarian books, which is also the author’s area of expertise. Most of the books he talks about and quotes from were unknown to me, but that didn’t lessen the enjoyment of reading his story. 

He has a quirky sense of humor, dry and sharp, that brings the characters in this unique place to life. He makes delightful new friends, he talks about old books like they are old friends, and treats all with respect and affection (well...almost all).    

When I finished it, I felt as if I’d spent a week in an old shop myself, walking the dusty aisles of aged book-friends, breathing in the musty scent and soaking up all the wisdom they have to offer. 

What a fine thing it would be to actually be there, but if you can’t, this might just be the next best thing.