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.

Aug 2022 Update. I read this again for a book club discussion, and got even more enjoyment from it this time around. Since I was to lead the discussion I read it much more carefully, finding connections and clues to the ending that  I hadn't noticed before. This books is brilliantly written and organized. It is full of incidences that are interesting on their own but then begin to add up to something quite unexpected. When you get to the end and look back you see how the whole thing is one big, glorious puzzle. I love this book!    

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 arbitrarily decide 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 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.

'Slipping Into Paradise"

Slipping Into Paradise by Jeffery Moussaieff Masson

I knew very little about New Zealand before this book, and having read it I don’t feel like I want or need to learn anymore. Masson has me convinced it really is paradise. The author is so in love with the place that as a reader, I couldn’t help falling too. Not that he tells us only the good stuff; he’s honest about the social and other problems, but the good seems to far outweigh the bad. 

The book starts with a map - always a great first impression for me - and there’s an interesting chapter on flora and fauna, both native and those introduced later. Another intriguing chapter is about the native Maori people, how they live now and all that they lost when New Zealand was colonized by people who thought they had the right to move in and take over.

The last chapter is Masson’s personal itinerary of a road trip around both the North and South Islands showing us all the country has to offer and taking us to a few special places off the beaten track. 

All in all a good book, and if travel is in your future, I don’t see how you could read this and not want to go. It truly does sound like Paradise.  

"Tolstoy and the Purple Chair'

Tolstoy and the Purple chair by Nina Sankovitch

Three years after Nina Sankovitch's sister died, she decided to spend a year reading one book every day. It would be her priority, her work, for a full year and she would be looking for answers about why she deserved to live when her sister was dead, and how to go on living now without her. Her husband and four sons agreed to give her the time and space she needed to read and to write a review on her blog of every book she read.

As others have said, I was surprised that a woman would ask so much of her family, and that they would agree to it. I, too, was put off by her expecting her husband to be so understanding of her needs, but when his sister died shortly after the author's sister, she couldn't make herself go to the funeral with him. I admit I don't know all the details of their lives, but from what she has told us, it just seems a bit odd. 

I enjoyed reading this, but in the end I found it to be over-heavy with profound metaphors. I was hoping for more about the books, but I don’t feel like she was so much sharing books with me as she was hitting me over the head with the lessons she learned. It’s in her delivery, not in what she’s saying. The things she learned were good, but it felt like too much of a stretch trying to relate everything she read to her own situation. 

I did enjoy hearing about all the books, and I’m impressed that anyone could read a whole book every day. The background she gave us on her father’s life was for me the most interesting part, and I hope someday she’ll write a book telling us more about him. 

The list of 365 books read at the end was nice.  

"Relative Happiness" and "The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper"

Relative Happiness by Lesley Crewe

There's almost nothing I can say about this book that is positive, so I won't say much at all. The story stretched credibility too far and the writing was disappointing. In my opinion it needed a lot more editing; I don't understand how it got published as it is. It is a first novel, and maybe her subsequent novels are better, but nothing in this one made me want to try them. Wish I had better things to say, but I did not enjoy it.

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick

This one is about a man who loses his wife, then finds among her things a charm bracelet he'd never seen before. He undertakes various adventures to find the story behind each charm, and in the process discovers his wife had a life before they met that he knew nothing about. It's a sweet story, if a bit far-fetched - or maybe a lot far-fetched. Arthur is a lovable character though, and it was a nice light read before tackling The Brothers Karamazov.

"The Reef"

The Reef by Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton, who was the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize (for The Age of Innocence) is one of my favourite writers. I've read several of her novels - Summer, Ethan Frome, The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence, and now The Reef, and have never been disappointed. I always feel particularly partial to the one I'm reading at the present moment, but I think over all my favourite is still Ethan Frome.

In this one George D. is going to France to propose to his lady love, Anna L., a widow with a young daughter. Anna and George had a romance years ago before she was married and he has carried the torch all these years. Anna has shown a reserve in their meetings that has George worried, and when at the last minute he receives a telegram telling him not to come now, with no explanation other than an "unexpected obstacle", he begins to think she is not committed to their relationship, and he is hurt and angry. Enter damsel in distress, Sophy V. He offers assistance and is charmed by her quirkiness and her straightforward manner. One thing leads to another, they spend a few days together, then they eventually go their own ways, back to their own lives.

George and Anna resolve their difficulties and he visits her at the family's chateau, Givré, in France, where he is to meet Anna's little girl so they can spend some time getting to know each other. When the girl and her governess enter the room, George finds to his horror that the governess is none other than his lady in distress, Sophy V.  But this is only the first complication. Anna has a brother who is in love with Sophy, and he has no idea that she has a history with George. Let the lying begin.

On the surface it's a quick, enjoyable read, but there are deeper things to consider as we watch the relationships unravel and each character decide what they can, and can't, live with, and why. There are questions that need answers, questions about male and female roles, about social expectations, sexuality, truth, and the nature of love. Wharton doesn't provide them all, and the ones she does provide are not always comfortable. It is a romance, but it is surely not a fairy tale. These are flawed people whose ideals and desires clash, pushing and pulling them in every direction.

What truly fascinated me was the way the author used facial expression, tone of voice, and every nuance of body language to tell the story of what was really taking place around all the reserved verbal communicating. She has such skill at observing, and conveying to the reader, what makes the characters tick, and such insight into the endless human struggle with right and wrong, that it's mesmerizing. Sometimes I got tired of Anna's indecision, but these are not characters that let you walk away from them. You have to - and you want to - stick with them to the end, and even then, they may refuse to leave you.

Great writing, good story, and lots to ponder in this one. Highly recommended.

"John A.: The Man Who Made Us"

John A.: The Man Who Made Us by Richard Gwyn

Well, it’s not light reading, but it is worth the effort. I intended to get it, and its sequel “Nation Maker”, read last year for Canada’s 150th birthday, but life had other plans so I’m getting them done now.

It’s very readable, not always something you can say about history books, and though I did get bogged down in the politics now and then, most of it was quite interesting. It’s full of great anecdotes about the development of Canada though the 1800s, descriptions of how our cities got started and what life was like in those places at that time. There was so much I didn’t know about our relationship with the U.S. through those years and up to Confederation, and I found that eye-opening. It also showed me, up close, the personalities I’ve only known as the Fathers of Confederation. Now I see them as real people, with strengths and talents, and foibles and flaws, and the result is they are far more interesting to me. I’m looking forward to the sequel.

"The Boy on the Beach"

The Boy on the Beach by Tima Kurdi

Written by the aunt of the little boy washed up on shore in that now famous picture that went viral a few months ago, this book was as agonizing to read as the picture was to look at. I'm glad I read it, but I certainly can't say I liked it. It was painful and I hated every page, but it showed me some things I'd never seen before and they were things I needed to see. I do recommend it and hope a great many people will read it, especially we who live on safe streets, in safe homes filled with food and running water and heat and furniture, we who have no idea at all what life lived in day to day fear, cold, hunger and danger is like. We need to understand more about that life, and to know that it could also happen to us.  

"Wallis: The Novel"

Wallis: The Novel by Anne Edwards

I've always been fascinated with Wallis Warfield Simpson. It seems you'd have to be a spectacular kind of woman for a man to abdicate the throne of England for you. I'd like to know what makes her tick, what her motives were, how she so completely enthralled the King that duty and service to his country took second place to her. 

Unfortunately, this book didn't do that for me. It is fiction, so bare facts, dates, and places would naturally be filled out with made-up dialogue and thoughts that may or may not have actually ever been in her head. It's always weird reading fictional biographies: you have no idea what to believe and what to ignore. 

In this one I'd have to say the author doesn't much like Mrs Simpson. She's painted as a social climber, gold-digger, promiscuous, incapable of deep relationships, and all 'round not very nice person. I think we are meant to have some sympathy for her in light of the difficult life she had growing up, but it's hard to feel sorry for someone who used everyone she knew for what they could do for her. She asked relatives for money constantly and was usually accommodated. When she was being introspective, she didn't see herself as promiscuous, yet she slept with five other men while she was still married. And she was quite disapproving of adultery on a philosophical level, which makes you wonder just how in touch with her own reality she actually was. 

The Wallis Simpson of this novel is not likable at all. And who knows, maybe this author got it right and Mrs. Simpson really didn't have any redeeming qualities. Because it's fiction, it's impossible to know what's real and what isn't. 

I think I'll try a biography or two and see what they have to say about her, but as far as this one goes, I can't recommend it. There were too many things that didn't make sense (like it being emphasized that she was completely broke, then the next thing you know she's buying a ticket to sail across the pacific ocean from China to California with no mention of where the money came from), and too many times she got whatever she wanted because things just kept falling into her lap. And truly, could anybody really be as shallow as the woman portrayed here? Come to think of it, I don't think I found a character to admire in the entire book. 

Disappointing, unbelievable, and even boring at times, this one only gets a 1 out of 5 from me.  

"Station Eleven" and "Bel Canto"

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Loved this book! I'm not usually a fan of dystopian literature, but there's something about this one. It begins with a worldwide epidemic that wipes out most of humanity, but it doesn't wallow in that dark, gritty misery we usually get in this genre. There is some of that of course, how could there not be, and the few who survive have to deal with all kinds of difficulty as they try to bring some kind of meaning back into their lives, but they do it. Shocked by their circumstances, terrified at times, they are still determined to survive as long as they can, and they use all the skill and imagination they have to do that. It's a great story, tragic yes, but hopeful, with well written, relate-able, characters. Highly recommended.

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

I bought this book because the title appealed to me and it turned out to be a good decision because it's a fascinating read. It's set in a small foreign country where an opera star is entertaining at an extravagant birthday party in the home of the Vice-President. In the middle of the party, a group of heavily armed terrorists storm in through windows and doors, intending to kidnap the President and make a clean getaway. But the president is not at the party, and now the terrorists are stuck with a room full of hostages and no plan. The story is far from the typical tv-type hostage drama. This one examines human relationships, and how people from completely different backgrounds, with varying worldviews, can make authentic connections in even the most precarious, and strange, circumstances. It's full of wonderful characters, in a story that is not only compelling, but quite beautiful. A must read.   

"The Avenue"

The Avenue by R.F. Delderfield  (Vol.1-The Dreaming Suburb, Vol.2-The Avenue Goes To War)

At 1100 pages, this novel needs a serious time commitment, but I was sick with bronchitis for almost 4 weeks, so I had nothing but time. It was the perfect, easy-to-read, get-lost-in-someone-else's-life, book that I needed under those circumstances.

It took a bit of time to get into it but that may have been mostly about how miserable I was feeling at that point. By the end of the first book I was eager to get into the second, and by the end of the second I was in love with the avenue and it inhabitants.

As the title suggests, the book is about the people living on a particular avenue in the suburbs of London, England. The Dreaming Suburb covers the years between the two world wars, when the characters who people this novel were children or young adults. This is where you learn their history, the events that shaped their characters and influenced their behaviour. The Avenue Goes to War begins in 1940, when bombs are being dropped on the avenue and life is changing dramatically for everyone. Some suffer, some profit, in the way war has of randomly choosing its victims. Some of the bad survive unscathed, some of the good lose everything. The true survivors grow in courage and humility, becoming people you wish you could have known.

I couldn't have asked for a more readable novel to get me through the past few weeks. It's not great literature, but it certainly is a good story, well told.

"River Thieves"

River Thieves by Michael Crummey

I didn’t like this book. I did like certain things about it, but if you asked me if I liked it overall I’d have to say no. I'm not saying it isn’t a good book – I’m not qualified to judge that – it just didn’t appeal to me. I do like his writing; his novel, Sweetland, is one of my favourite books.

Crummey's descriptions are wonderfully vivid. You can smell the forest and feel the cold of a Newfoundland winter. I love the setting: the ocean, the snow, the ice, the forest, the whole wild, harsh, landscape. I also appreciated the history lesson - early 19th century trappers and fishermen from Britain living and working in Newfoundland, contributing to the decline and eventual extinction of the Beothuk Indians. It lead me to do some further research which introduced me to a chapter of Canadian history I knew nothing about.

I didn’t like any of the characters - even the ones I might have liked felt distant. I admit they were believable, each one revealing light and dark in their natures, but they all seemed to make terrible choices, destructive to themselves and everybody else. The story is based on historical fact but it is told with such violence and brutality, it left me feeling like the whole human race is beyond hope. It is grim. 

So, while I do very much enjoy Michael Crummey's writing, I did not enjoy this book.

"The Return Journey"

The Return Journey by Maeve Binchy

I'm not much of a short story fan, but I love Maeve Binchy's story telling style. Since there won't be any more novels, I thought I'd give this a shot. The stories are quite short, tiny snippets of people's lives dealing with a particular situation, sometimes covering a mere few hours and yet each one feeling complete. And they are absolutely wonderful. The characters are poignantly real and their problems ordinary and familiar, but as always she manages to make them fresh and fascinating. It's a small book filled with tiny, delicious slices of life, highly readable and very satisfying.

"To The North" and "The Princess Saves Herself In This One"

To The North by Elizabeth Bowen

Well did I ever have the wrong idea about this book. It’s been on my shelf for a long time and I was sure it was about a woman who moved to the far north with her husband. I thought it was about them scratching out a living in the snow and ice of the Northwest Territories. I’ve read several similar stories and wasn’t yet ready for another one so I kept putting it off. When I make my quarterly reading list I always include one book that’s been on my shelf far too long and this time my attention turned to To The North because I’m tired of seeing it there.

What a surprise. It has nothing to do with wilderness life, but is in fact set in 1940’s London amongst well-to-do people with names like Julian and Cecilia. Svelte dresses, cocktails, and beautiful homes are the stuff this book is made of. So I went from thinking ‘pioneer drama’ to ‘upper class fluff’, but surprise again, this is nowhere near fluff. It’s a serious story about how we live our lives on one level while showing the world another, nicer, level. These characters are very human, deeply flawed, and trying to make the most of lives they find unfulfilling.

I love Elizabeth Bowen’s writing style and was pleased to discover a backlist of novels I’d never heard of. So not only did I enjoy a book I was dreading a bit, but I discovered an author with a whole list of books I can now look forward to reading. Success on every level.    

The Princess Saves Herself In This One by Amanda Lovelace

This is a book of poems that tell the story of a girl who worked her way from abused and depressed to strong and free. It’s written in free verse and I’ve read some of the criticisms that say it’s not really poetry, but I disagree. Yes, there are some that read like an ordinary sentence with the words written in a column instead of a line, but there is more that does read like poetry, in that much meaning is packed into few words. In poetry every word, every image, every figure of speech has a purpose and I see that in these poems. I did think it was a bit self-indulgent at times, but then I don’t know the author or what she’s been through. It's possible that if I read it again, and I want to, I may not feel that way.

Overall I liked it. It’s easy and smooth to read as far as language goes (fyi, there are a few f-bombs) and easy to understand. I got through it quite quickly but it would be possible to spend more time in it absorbing the impact of her words. I do think it deserves that.