We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

 We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Rosemary Cooke's childhood was an experiment her scientist parents were conducting. She didn't know that till much later.

A sister she was close to disappeared when Rosemary was five years old and was never spoken of again; an older brother left home shortly thereafter and wasn't seen for ten long years. These losses left her mother deeply depressed, her father drinking too much, and Rosemary struggling with loneliness and guilt over her part in the disappearances, guilt that would affect every subsequent relationship in her life.

I've made it sound like a mystery, but it isn't really. It's about the confusing and complicated relationships of families, asking us to think about what and who a family is. The writing reveals emotional depths in its characters without sentimentality, a relief after some of the overly-dramatic Christmas reading I tried. This one feels authentic and the characters credible, drawing you so into the story that you forget you're reading a story and find yourself simply living in it. 

There's much more to it that than my brief summary tells you but I don't want to reveal anything that might take away from your reading experience. There's a twist early on that changes everthing and takes you on a journey you might not have been expecting. And there's a lot to think about on this journey, a lot to learn. It's not a story I particularly liked but it is important and memorable and I'm glad I read it and had to consider some of the questions it raises. 

This one is well worth reading.   

The Philosophy Book and Sister Carrie

 The Philosophy Book by Otto Bohmer

 
This little book (168 pgs) is meant to be an accompaniment to Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarter. It didn't come to me until years after I'd read that book and on it's own I must admit it was a bit dry. It gives a little information about each philosopher as he shows up in the novel, so I think having it as an accompaniment would have made Sophie's World, already an exhilarating reading experience, even better.



Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser

Carrie, 18, looks for work in Chicago where the jobs available to her pay so little that she remains dependent upon her sister's charity until she meets Drouet, who charms her into letting him support her in style. She doesn't love him, but he offers an alternative to poverty and as his mistress she quickly learns to appreciate the comfort and personal luxuries money can buy. 

After a time he introduces her to his friend Hurstwood, who becomes obsessed with Carrie and to whom she also feels an attraction. She continues to live with Drouet while Hurstwood urges her to run away with him, but then she finds out that he already has a wife and family and furiously refuses to see him again. 

Desperate, he sends her a message implying that Drouet is very ill, and offering to  take her to him. Instead, Hurstwood kidnaps her and takes her to New York City. Not being very attatched to Drouet (and loyal to nobody but herself it seems), she barely protests and sets about getting used to a pleasant New York lifestyle. 

What she doesn't know is that Hurstwood has lost control of his fortune and is supporting her only on the 10,000 pounds he stole on his way out of Chicago. That money eventually runs out and, determined to avoid poverty, Carrie auditions for a part in a play. She begins to find success as an actress and becomes financially independent enough to leave him. Hurstwood goes into a downward spiral ending in.....I won't say just in case I'm not the only person left on the planet who hasn't read this book.  

I intended to read it for years and finally got down to it when chirpbooks.com offered an audio version at an appealingly low price. I'd like to say I loved the story but the truth is I didn't. It was interesting enough to keep me going though, and the writing was wonderful. 

Letters Across the Sea

 Letters Across the Sea by Genevieve Graham

A romance with some interesting WWII history. The title suggests an epistolary novel but it's not that - there are letters, but only a few. 

In the 1930s, friends Max Drefuss and Molly Ryan's friendship is beginning to develop into something more, but is complicated by their different faiths. He is Jewish and she, Protestant. With growing anti-semitism around the world and similar tension growing in their own community, their families - who have been good friends till now - and friends warn them against planning a future together. 

One evening at a community baseball game, tensions flare when a swastika is publicly displayed, resulting in a riot involving thousands. Molly's father, a policeman, catches Molly and Max about to kiss, and he grabs Max to pull him away from her. Other family members get involved and someone throws a brick hitting hits Mr. Ryan in the head, an injury that leads to a stroke. Everyone blames Max's father, who was trying to protect his son from Mr. Ryan, and the friendship between the families is broken. 

When WWII starts, Molly's four brothers sign up, as does Max. Molly is working as a journalist for the Toronto Star and she has begun dating a colleague. 

At this point in the story, the action moves to Hong Kong, where Max, Ritchie and their friends are in a battle for their lives. I didn't know anything about this particular battle or the camps to which the captured soldiers were taken and found this section quite interesting if gruesome. 

After the war, the survivors come home changed in body and mind. Some characters get their happily ever after and some don't but over all the ending is hopeful and upbeat. 

I enjoyed the history, but the story and dialogue seemed less than realistic at times. At the end the author includes a 'note to the reader' with further historical information. I found the writing better in that section, with Graham's enthusiasm for the subject grabbing me in a way the love story didn't. I did learn some Canadian history from it, so if I can't say I really liked it, I can say I'm glad I read it.

  

A Magical New York Christmas and Christmas By The Book

 A Magical New York Christmas by Anita Hughes

This a romance as most Christmas novels are, but it sparkles with holiday lights, glittering store front windows, skating under the stars in Central Park, and the glamour of Christmas at New York's Plaza Hotel. 

Sabrina has accepted a job offer to be a ghost writer for a famous art dealer, a job that provides a week's stay in her own suite at The Plaza with all expenses paid plus a hefty paycheck at the end. She'll be writing his stories, including his time as a butler at the Plaza to the author of her favourite books, the Eloise series.

Sabrina meets Ian at the hotel bar and though a communication mix-up believes him to be a British Lord, when in reality he's just working for that aristocrat. Ian believes Sabrina to be one of the usual guests at the hotel, wealthy and beautiful, and out of his league. 

Of course the ending is predictable, but the plot is different than any other I've read and the characters are likeable enough that you care what happens to them. Even if I hadn't enjoyed the story, being immersed in a New York Christmas would have been enough, but with a decent plot and reasonably believable characters it turned out to be quite a good seasonal read.  


Christmas by the Book by Anne Marie Ryan

I'd read a couple of really bad holiday themed novels just before I picked this one up, so it's possible I liked this simply because it wasn't as awful as the others. But it does have a lot going for it: a lovely married couple struggling to keep their bookshop open; a small English town with realistic, interesting characters; random acts of literary kindness that make a positive difference in people's lives; and through it all the Christmas theme that remains distinct, but never over-the-top.

If there are a few too many happy co-incidences and if it all leads to the predictable happy ending for everybody, the story is solid enough to make up for it and, anyway, a certain amount of sentimentality is expected and acceptable in Christmas fiction. The writing may have a few weak moments but overall it's quite well written and it was a pleasure to read.

It was much better than I went into it expecting, and I have to say that of the new Christmas stories I read this year, this one had the best plot and enough of Christmas in it to be a satisfying holiday read. It 
has earned a place on my shelf and will be read again.





Christmas Reading

What a strange Christmas this has been for us. Dec 13th I came down with some random virus (not the flu, not covid) and am just now starting to feel like myself again. I was contagious so everyone had to stay away and I missed all the usual gatherings and celebrations. When I look back at it now, it's a just blur of shivering under a pile of quilts, coughing and sneezing, eating popscicles that all tasted like cough drops, and basically just trying to breathe. I wasn't able to read much because one of this particular virus' gifts was conjuctivitis in both eyes, but I did listen to a few audio books to pass time and stay relatively sane. Unfortunately I was in such a fog when I listened to them that I remember little about them now, but they served their purpose in helping me get through a trying time. 

A Town Divided by Christmas by Orson Scott Card
A small town in North Carolina has been chosen for a genetic study searching for a "homebody" gene to explain why people move back to their hometowns after trying to start a life elsewhere. The two scientists sent to conduct the study get involved in the lives of the locals and of course romance ensues. The division referred to in the title is within the town's Episcopalian congregation, a break that happened 87 years ago over a disagreement about which newborn would play the part of baby Jesus. Because of the title you'd think that was meant to be the main story line but I found it overshadowed by the genetic study and the romances. It's a great title, just not particularly apt in this case.  

It was a cute story - I cringe to say that because to me 'cute' feels like a derogatory term - but it's the only word I can think of that works in this case. I do think I might have liked it better if I'd read it; I found the narration came across as a little too wry at times.  

Christmas At Fairacre by Miss Read
This truly lovely book I did read and thoroughly enjoyed. I read it every few years and never tire of it. My original review is here.






Bethlehem, the Year Jesus was Born by Scott Douglas
A short book that is exactly what the title says it is. It looks at various aspects of life at the time of Jesus' birth and gives us an idea what it would have been like for the different characters in the story.  




The Garden House by Marcia Willett
Not a Christmas book but I needed a story to fall into and this served the purpose. Again, I more or less followed it while I was listening but it's a little foggy when I think back now. The main character is El, a young woman just out of university and grieving the recent loss of her father. She moves into his house, gets reacquainted with her childhood friend, Will, and together they begin to see that El's father had a life they'd known nothing about. I like Marcia Willet's writing and the narration by Emma Powell was perfect.   

Meet Me in London and Lost December

 Meet Me in London by Georgia Toffolo

Not one of the better Christmas books I've read, so I won't say much. It's the story of a fashion designer who agrees to a temporary fake engagement with a stranger willing to show her designs in his new department store. It's meant to be a Christmas book but it's not very Christmassy. It's pretty much all about their physical attraction to each other, a story better described as sexy than romantic I think. The plot had potential but there wasn't enough of it to make for a really good read. 

Lost December by Richard Paul Evans

In a modern day re-telling of the story of the prodigal son, Luke takes his trust fund and goes off with friends to do what he calls "real living", leaving his father broken hearted and without an heir for his business empire. The son gets in with the wrong crowd, blows through his money in less than a year and ends up disillusioned, broke, and homeless. Rescued by Carlos who finds him lying in a parking lot, beaten and robbed of everything but his underwear, he begins to realize how much he took for granted and how much he has lost. Carlos gives him a place to stay at the care home he runs, feeds and clothes him, and puts him to work helping care for the residents. Too ashamed to face his father, he takes an entry level job at one of his father's business outlets, grateful now for even a small income that will provide him with food and clothes. When Luke abandoned his father and the business, his father had suffered a major heart attack, forcing him to hire someone else to take over the running of the business. Soon the new guy's less than ethical policies begin to affect some of Luke's work colleagues. When a young single mother, and then his boss who is about to retire and needs his pension, are let go without reason, Luke decides to face his father and plead their cases. Will his father let him in the door, will he listen, or will he reject him?

As Christmas stories go, this one wasn't bad. There were times when things seemed to come too easily to Luke on his road to recovery and redemption, things that would be very unlikely in a real life, but the book is quite well written and uplifing in its way.
 

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