Fall into New Books

October 8, 2021

Boekwinkel by Willy Belinfante

The seasons are rolling by and today we have another tie-in with the Red Fern Book Review podcast, this time focused on an Autumn selection. Things got a bit giddy during our chat (Say what? Who doesn’t love PS. I Love You?!) but Amy Mair and I did manage to stay focused on discussing six new recommendations. Our Summer weather vanished quite dramatically this year and it definitely feels like time to curl up and sink into a good read. So tune into the chat with Amy at Red Fern and hear a bit more background to the great stories described here.

When I Ran Away by Ilona Bannister – This novel begins with an encounter between two people during their escape from the falling towers in New York City on 9-11. Their story travels from Staten Island, NY to London England and encompasses grief, family life, loss of identity, motherhood … all the big complex stuff! It has been described as a powerfully emotional novel, yet funny and “a big hug of a read” too. That contrast caught my attention! Ilona Bannister’s own life experience closely parallels the story and so it seems we can count on a level of authenticity. We’ve just acknowledged the 20th anniversary of 9-11 so this story may give us some insight into what post 9-11 life might have been for some of its survivors.

Brothers on Three – A True Story of Family, Resistance, and Hope on a Reservation in Montana by Abe Streep – As an accomplished journalist, usually in the realm of Sports for publications like Outside magazine, NYT, and The New Yorker, Abe Streep has an eye for a good underdog story. After coming across a billboard promoting a High School State Championship basketball game in a small indigenous community in Montana, Streep felt there was a story to be pitched. As he delved into the background and learned more about the players and the community, he realized this was more than an article, it was a whole book. The boys on the winning team take on legendary status in their small town and Streep follows their progress as they assume responsibilities and challenges beyond their years. While it’s a feel-good sports story (and we all love those!) it also provides a glimpse into life as an Indigenous youth in a modern world. Reviews say it’s “exquisitely written and meticulously reported”.

Sparks Like Stars by Nadia Hashimi – You may recognize the author’s name from her earlier book, The Pearl That Broke Its Shell Once again, Hashimi explores the experience of an Afghan woman. Sparks like Stars follows the story of a woman, adopted and raised by an American diplomat, as she investigates and comes to terms with the violent death of her parents during a coup in Kabul when she was a young child in the 1970s. With Afghan heritage herself, and a personal commitment to supporting Afghan women with their present day challenges, Hashimi writes with a deep connection to her character’s experience. As we watch the news reels from Afghanistan over the last few months, this is a timely and important opportunity to understand a bit more about the history of this region in an accessible way.

Island Queen by Vanessa Riley- I had never heard of Dorothy “Doll” Kirwan Thomas but once I learned that this historical fiction novel is based on her life, I looked her up and can assure you this will be an inspiring and entertaining read. What a character! Ms. Thomas was a free woman of colour who went from a life of slavery to becoming one of the most wealthy and powerful landowners in the West Indies. Vanessa Riley takes us on a fictionalized trip through 1700s Montserrat to Dominica, Barbados, and beyond following the brilliant schemes and adventures of a woman who lived a most remarkable life. Historical fiction is almost always in our wheelhouse here and this one promises to deliver great writing and an epically engaging story as we travel back in time.

My B(igg)est Mistake – Epic Fails and Silver Linings by Terry O’Reilly – I love the cover of this one. Just a hint at the creativity marketing guru Terry O’Reilly often exhibits. If the name is familiar (and his voice will be even more so) Terry O’Reilly is the entertaining host of the “Under The Influence” and “Age of Persuasion” radio programmes on CBC, also available as popular podcasts. If you are a listener, you will know that Terry shares the fascinating stories behind the scenes of big marketing campaigns and familiar brands. In this new collection, the stories are focused on the big blunders that turned into super successes. A green ink printing glitch gave the Hulk his hue, for instance – he’d originally been grey. Not sure a boring old grey Hulk would have been nearly as threatening or memorable! Along with juicy gems like that, there is a positive message about embracing the failures in life as they may well turn out to be the best thing going forward.

Freckles by Cecilia Ahern – Cecilia Ahern is the prolific author on whose novels movie RomComs like “Love, Rosie” and “PS I Love You” have been based. She has consistently been producing heartwarming, romantic tales, often with a dash of her native Irish charm, almost annually since 2004; 25 million copies of her books out there now! Her latest, Roar, was a bit of a departure from her usual Romance genre, being instead, a collection of short stories about women finding their inner power. Nicole Kidman and a few other big name actors are presently at work on it’s production for AppleTV. But, back to the newest news, Freckles! The inspiration for this story came from a conversation about the theory that each person is the average of the five people with whom they spend the most time. The main character in the story, nicknamed Freckles for obvious reason, is a bit of a lost soul and makes a move to the big city (Dublin) to create a new future. She applies the “Five People” hypothesis and the story follows her new connections and personal transformation. Warm, witty, endearing, touching and hopeful … all words that appear repeatedly in the reviews. Amy of Red Fern Book Review podcast may not have been as keen as I am on this genre but I firmly believe these heartwarming tales are a joy when they hit you at the right moment. If you’re having a moment, here’s the cure!

Tune in to the Fall Reading episode at Red Fern Book Review here.

The Bomber Mafia by Malcolm Gladwell – Revisionist Historian Malcolm Gladwell returns with another high energy examination of historical events with his trademark intense curiosity. “Gladwell weaves together the stories of a Dutch genius and his homemade computer, a band of brothers in central Alabama, a British psychopath, and pyromaniacal chemists at Harvard to examine one of the greatest moral challenges in modern American history.” Military strategy and morally guided, or misguided, decision-making among this group of characters results in the Tokyo bombings during WWII. Inevitably fascinating, these reflections and investigations for which Gladwell is known, cause us to think deeply about the present in the light of our past. Bound to be another compelling Malcolm Gladwell production.

We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker – Just started this one myself and, a few pages in, I can declare: so far, so good! I read so many glowing reviews that I simply had to dive in as soon as this was released. Whitaker is one of those writers who is able to unveil a story and its characters with just enough pace and intrigue to thoroughly capture us, even in a few paragraphs. This is a mystery and a thriller, set in a world where family and community play pivotal roles. Walk is the small town Police Chief who is fiercely protective of a young family with a troubled Mom. Duchess Day Radley, the daughter, bears the burden of her responsibilities and calls herself an “Outlaw”. “A murder roils the town, setting in motion an intriguing mystery. But what lingers after the scores are settled is Duchess, in all her defiant, heartbreaking glory.” (People Book Review) Now, I almost always dig around a little to know more about a book’s author as it usually enhances my reading in some way; Chris Whitaker offers up some must-read, deeply personal content here.

Landslide by Susan Conley – Set in a fishing community in Maine, a mother of three teen boys has to cope with raising them alone after an accident isolates her husband, the boys’ father, in Canada. “With remarkable poise and startling beauty, Landslide ushers us into a modern household where, for a family at odds, Instagram posts, sex-positivity talks, and old fishing tales mingle to become a kind of love language. It is a beautiful portrait of a family, as compelling as it is moving, and raises the question of how to remain devoted when the eye of the storm closes in.” This has been described as an intimate, funny, honest and poignant portrayal of motherhood – managing extraordinary circumstances and balancing the urge to protect with the reality of letting go. Incredibly generous reviews by writers’ writers which means the writing is at its best.

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead – “Epic and emotional, meticulously researched and gloriously told, Great Circle is a monumental work of art, and a tremendous leap forward for the prodigiously gifted Maggie Shipstead.” Pretty high praise! The story begins in the early 20th Century with a life altering rescue at sea, a move to Montana and then the coming of age of a daring female aviator, Marian, who finds solace and joy in the world of adventurous flying. Her story moves on to the Pacific Northwest, New Zealand, and wartime London. The story picks up in modern day L.A. when young actress, Hadley Baxter, is given the role of Marian in a movie depicting her legendary disappearance while circumnavigating the globe a generation earlier. Hadley and Marian, despite the passage of time, share a mutual yearning for freedom – Marian, seeks a literal escape and Hadley, a reprieve from a world of expectations around fame and celebrity.

The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World by Laura Imai Messina – It was ten years ago that Japan was struck with the earthquake and tsunami that dramatically swept away entire communities; thousands of people were never recovered. In a quiet garden a widower had, some years before, set up a phone booth in which a disconnected rotary telephone allowed him to communicate “on the wind” with his late wife. It had brought him comfort in his grief and he shared his “wind phone” with the many others now seeking to understand the complexities of their losses. The remarkable phone booth was talked about on NPR and other international media outlets. Laura Imai Messina is an Italian writer who’s made Japan her home for more than 15 years. She wanted to explore the magic of the “wind phone” in a deeper way and so wrote the novel The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World from the perspective of Yui, a Tokyo Radio host whose annual pilgrimage to the phone in the garden tenderly connects her with fellow mourners, enriching her life and helping her move forward with hope and joy along with her memories. The book is translated from Italian and is emerging on bestseller lists in over 21 countries. Kirkus Reviews calls it “a must-read”

China by Edward Rutherfurd – Sarum, Russka, London, Paris, New York … all epic tales and Rutherford bestsellers. Edward Rutherfurd researches deeply and then creates entire worlds where he lets multiple generations loose to play, unfolding history and family sagas concurrently. I really enjoy his work and am delighted to see China emerge as his next set for history and storytelling to meet. “From Shanghai to Nanking to the Great Wall, Rutherfurd chronicles the turbulent rise and fall of empires as the colonial West meets the opulent and complex East in a dramatic struggle between cultures and people.” Opium, tea and silver trading all combine to merge English, American, and Chinese interests with dramatic consequence, romance and intrigue included. Beginning in 1839 and the first Opium War, this story carries us through Mao’s Cultural Revolution and into present day. His books are doorstoppers for sure (this one comes in at 784 pages) but I guarantee, as daunting as it may seem, your trip into any of his stories is so worth it. Lots to learn and always a story to savour.

Red Fern Book Review podcast tie-in. Tune in to hear the chat!

Dusk, Night, Dawn by Anne Lamott – I have had Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird, on my shelf for more than 25 years. It is well-thumbed, extensively highlighted and treasured. Anne’s voice is uniquely wise, honest, hilarious, self-deprecating and hits all the hard topics with a gentle touch. Recently, I heard Anne interviewed on a podcast and had to stop in my tracks to write down a fresh aha! gem. A few steps later, more gems to note. Slow walk that day! She is simply enchanting and her optimistic, yet realistic, view is most welcome when things seem gloomy out there. This latest writing is part of a series focused on coming to terms with Life’s essential truths and has been called “an ode to relishing small things.” While some categorize her writing under “Religion”, I would argue that she is universally appealing to the Human faith. Can’t wait to read her newest words and will surely have the highlighter handy!

When the Stars Go Dark by Paula McLain – If you’ve been flipping pages in the historical fiction genre anytime in the last decade, you will surely know of Paula McLain. She has beautifully reimagined the lives of Hemingway’s wives, Hadley Richardson in The Paris Wife and Martha Gelhorn in Love & Ruin. Both were hugely popular reads with book clubs. My particular favourite among her books, so far, is Circling the Sun, which explores the exciting and unusual life of Beryl Markham. McLain’s newest story goes in a different direction and emerges in the realm of mystery and suspense. A Missing Persons Detective returns to her hometown for some much needed respite and becomes enmeshed in two intense new cases, each involving a young woman. Paula McLain has written honestly in essays about her own difficult childhood and one can imagine that When the Stars Go Dark may draw on some of this traumatic experience as inspiration. (See Real Simple essay called A Lesson In Motherhood and find others on Paula’s website) By all accounts it’s as beautifully written as her earlier works and grips the heartstrings all the way.

Brat: An 80’s Story by Andrew McCarthy – Brat as in Brat Pack. With us now? If you were coming of age in the 1980s, you may well have been living in a director John-Hughes-infused world of movies, soundtracks and fashions featuring stars known as the Brat Pack. Andrew McCarthy was the tall, quiet observer, angsty, best friend … Fast forward many years and I found myself noting the by-line of a remarkably well-written travel essay. “Would that be the one and same?”, I wondered. Sure enough! Turns out Andrew McCarthy had traveled widely in his adult life and recorded his thoughts and experiences in the most respected travel publications. Read some of his essays here. He’d also written a well-reviewed memoir called The Longest Way Home as well as the YA book, Just Fly Away. Both were NYT best sellers. Which is all only to say, I look forward to reading Brat for the writing. He’s also featured in the credits as a Director for many episodes of top popular television series. There are a few tetchy interviews on record in which McCarthy made it clear he was a reluctant member of the so-called band of Brats. This may lead one to believe that some conflict lies within the story behind the story. Good writing and perhaps some intriguing celebrity revelations ahead.

The Secret Keeper of Jaipur by Alka Joshi – I really enjoyed reading The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi and know I wasn’t alone; it was a global best seller and a Reese’s Book Club favourite. In its pages we were introduced to the precocious little helper, “Malik”. Well, Joshi’s new book, The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, follows along with Malik’s story. He’s back, 12 years later and working as an apprentice at the pink palace and enmeshed in tangled webs of love, lies and class struggles. Lakshmi is back too, providing connections and unraveling more of her own story. I love when a book lingers long in one’s memory and I expect The Secret Keeper of Jaipur will do so just as The Henna Artist did.

How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue – A very striking cover on this one! You may recognize the author’s name from her wildly successful book, Behold the Dreamers, published in 2016. That one has gone on to become an opera, a stage play and is now slated to become a television mini-series. I still have it on my must read list. Meanwhile, How Beautiful We Were, seems primed to achieve a level of greatness all its own. A young African woman returns to her fictional village following studies abroad and takes up the battle to defend her ancestral land and the dignity of her people in the shadow of an American oil company’s reckless and crushing endeavours: oil spills, tainted drinking water, the greed of profit seekers… Reviewers almost unanimously celebrate the main character, Thula, as a heroine to remember though the story reflects the perspectives of many.

The Elephant of Belfast by S. Kirk Walsh – Here is a debut novel from an accomplished essay writer who has thoroughly researched a little known true story from wartime Belfast. There are so many layers: The Belfast Blitz, British Loyalist/Irish political tension, Belfast’s first woman Zookeeper, the bond between a heartbroken young woman and an orphaned elephant (named Violet) and some suspenseful hide and seek. Oodles of stars being allocated in the reviews of this one! WWII themed historical fiction is so popular at the moment and this story offers a uniquely compelling take on wartime challenges. I love a good foray into a different time and place and early readers assure that this read will transport us and engage us dramatically. “A gripping and uplifting tribute.” (Hachette) A little bonus trivia … Published as The Zookeeper of Belfast in some regions while titled The Elephant of Belfast here in Canada – Zookeeper and elephant share equal billing in the story it seems. Also, beloved author Michael Morpurgo, discovered this story as well and wrote his version for children called An Elephant in the Garden. Bit of a spoiler there I guess!

More Spring book releases in the next Post!

May I Introduce You …

March 22, 2021

… to a fun little collaboration between Bedside Table Books and Red Fern Book Review. Red Fern Book Review is an excellent new podcast related to books and ably hosted by one Amy Mair.

Our lives intertwined in a few ways but it was while Amy and I were both volunteering at a Used Book Fair that our mutual love for reading surfaced. As we sorted the books, we realized we shared very similar taste in our literary choices and have enjoyed sharing reading recommendations whenever our paths have crossed since.

A few months ago, Amy decided to explore the world of podcasting. Red Fern Book Review is the delightful result. And what was that about a collaboration? Well, Amy kindly invited me to join her “on air” and share my favourite book picks among the Spring Releases. It seems like only yesterday that I posted about all the great New Year releases and now we’re into Spring with another fresh crop. Tune in on Wednesday, March 24th for Red Fern’s newest episode and Bedside Table Books’ first Podcast tie-in post.

Meanwhile, if you’re looking for some fun book chat, catch up with Amy’s earlier episodes, here.

See you on Wednesday, with your headphones on!

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