May 26, 2023
(Art by: Peder Severin Krøyer, Roses, 1893, Skagens Museum, Skagen, Denmark)
The days are getting longer and so, too, are the lists of enticing books to enjoy on our travels or in our gardens. It’s a season that celebrates reading! I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to share a few of the titles that are catching my eye and to join Amy Mair at Red Fern Book Review for our annual Summer Reads chat. Tune in to the Red Fern Book Review podcast episode here to listen to our conversation around the top six summer choices listed below. Looking forward to your thoughts too. Let us know what you’re choosing to read from this list, and beyond!
“Set in late 16th-century Africa, India, Portugal, and Japan, The African Samurai is a powerful historical novel based on the true story of Yasuke, Japan’s first foreign-born samurai and the only samurai of African descent—for readers of Esi Edugyan and Lawrence Hill.”
The boy begins life in a small African village but is taken and sold into slavery. Over time he becomes a skilled soldier who is later promoted to the role of personal protector to an Italian Priest and Missionary bound for Japan. When in Japan, he is caught up in a riot amid the Japanese civil war and ends up being “gifted” to the Warlord Nobunaga. The two men forge a bond and the young soldier and protector from Africa is controversially honoured by Nobunaga with the Samurai title and Japanese name, Yasuke. The fact that this enthralling tale actually took place will make this novel all the more entertaining to read. Author Craig Shreve is a likeable Canadian writer who is personally committed to researching and honouring Yasuke’s story in his novel. Really looking forward to this one!
Do hope you find something that interests you here and that you tune into Red Fern Book Review to hear more about these choices. I will be offering a few more titles to explore this Summer in a second instalment of Summer Reading ’23. Stay tuned!
October 21, 2022
When I last posted, I was remarking just how many great books were being released this Fall and shared a “shortlist” of nine well-known writers launching new works. Amy Mair of Red Fern Book Review podcast and I met recently to discuss another list of books showing up on the book shop shelves this season. Among the five books we discuss on air, you’ll find character-forward novels, a literary psychological mystery, and an intriguing non-fiction work too. Be sure to tune in for our fun rambling chat about the books described below and a few other related (or unrelated) recommendations and topics.
Carter Bays was a writer on the very entertaining and popular show, “How I Met Your Mother”. His first novel, The Mutual Friend, sports an equally contemporary, youthful, and wide ranging cast of characters, all digitally connected through their devices. The story focuses on a 28 year old woman who is navigating the challenges of moving forward in her life while under the distracting influence of “screen time” – a modern and very real scenario. While she works as a nanny, dreaming of writing her MCAT and going to medical school, she is caught up in the chaos between life through her phone and her real live life. Described as “a comedy of manners in an era of buzzing gadgets” and “a modern epic brimming with charm”, this promises to be a thought provoking story as well. Reviews indicate it’s a refreshing exploration of new territory but one should be prepared to commit to keeping the many intertwined characters straight and to sticking with a longer read. Fine by me if we can just put down our phones and carve out the time for a great story!
Mike Gayle is a prolific and popular writer based in the UK. I’ve long been meaning to read his work and I’m so pleased this most recent novel is available for us to enjoy here in Canada. While the title may evoke the melancholy tones of a Beatles song (Eleanor Rigby) this story brings the humour while also acknowledging difficult times. Reminiscent of “A Man Called Ove”, the main character, Hubert, is eighty-four years old, and settled into his reclusive ways after a lifetime of hurt and struggle as a Jamaican “Windrush” immigrant, raising a family in a bi-racial marriage in an often unwelcoming environment. On their weekly calls, Hubert convinces his daughter who is living abroad in Australia, that he is thriving and busily engaged in a social and happy life. He makes up wonderfully fun stories to keep her entertained and worry-free. However, when his daughter plans a visit to see him, Hubert realizes he’s going to be caught out unless he quickly creates the life he has fibbed about. Let the games begin! Looking forward to this one.
Another author with past success, Matthew Quick will be familiar to readers of Silver Linings Playbook; those of us who saw the movie may be more familiar with its stars, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. While Quick poignantly dealt with family, friendship and mental illness struggles in Silver Linings, he takes us into the realm of grief and a broken community in We Are the Light. The story that “reminds us that life is full of guardian angels” is epistolary, told in letters to a former Jungian Analyst and features the special relationship between widower Lucas and a grief-stricken eighteen year old, named Eli as they bond together to heal their community and themselves. Hope and Empathy are the two words that appear most often in reviews and while grief may seem a difficult topic for some readers, the message is uplifting and heartwarming. One reviewer wrote that reading Quick’s books was like going to your favourite restaurant, you always know it’s going to be good!
There are loads of readers who crave a good mystery out there. I may be a bit of a wimp when it comes to the thriller genre but I, too, do enjoy a good twisty whodunnit; this compelling mystery is waiting on my bedside table for me now. I was hooked as soon as I saw the Boston Public Library was the setting for the intrigue but the story and its author’s background further convinced me to get aboard the bandwagon. First, picture a table of strangers in the Reading Room, near where a crime occurs, being held by Security as the investigation gets under way. During the long wait, they begin to befriend one another and personal stories are shared. One of them, however, will prove to be the culprit. Described as a psychological mystery within a mystery, The Woman In the Library is a “literary thrill and page turner”. Author Sulari Gentill first studied Astrophysics and then went on to become a corporate lawyer. She started writing historical crime novels in her free time and her intelligent approach to the stories garnered her several awards. She is now a productive full time writer, living on a farm in the Snowy Mountains of New South Wales, Australia.
This newest book by Susan Cain is on its way to launching an entire movement just like her Quiet book did. In 2012, the world became fascinated by her revelations about introversion and its impact on individuals, workplaces, and families. Her TED talk on the topic became one of the most popular ever produced. Now Susan is using research, storytelling, and memoir to explore the concept of Bittersweet and its impact on creativity, compassion and connection. She considers this state of mind “a superpower” – that there is a hidden power generated in sad songs and rainy days. Beyond the book itself, there is an online quiz, a Ted Talk and a Spotify playlist to help immerse us in the concept of Bittersweet. I, for one, am very curious to know more and really look forward to reading this.
If you do wish to hear more about these book choices along with several other recommendations and to listen to a bit more back story and general bookish chat, tune in to Red Fern Book Review’s, Season 2 episode # 4 here.
Happy Reading! And Listening!
September 5, 2022
Summer is winding down and I hope everyone has been enjoying a good read or two. Or twelve for the lucky ones! Many of us were struggling with getting in the page turns so twelve might be a stretch … too many distractions. I have to say when I forced myself to turn off, tune out, and sit with a book, there were great reads to be had this summer. And, if finding a book that “speaks to you” was the challenge, you no longer have that excuse. I think this Fall may have more intriguing releases than any other I recall. Get a load of this list – strictly confined to new releases by tried and true writers. If you’re not familiar with the earlier book, you get two to consider. I imagine most of you have read the old and might be keen to try the new. I know what the good writers were doing those last two weird Covid summers … writing!
Release dates range from recent to November – pre-order those ones so you get a surprise in the mail!
June 17, 2022
Amy Mair of Red Fern Books Podcast and I recently sat down (in person this time) for our second annual Summer Reads tie-in. Read the highlights below and then listen to more in our conversation over here.
If Amy managed to execute some editing wizardry, you will miss out on an epic coughing fit as this guest-of-the-week almost combusted. Mic-off is a safer bet for (hack, hack) this gal. Otherwise, we had a really fun chat!
These six books are chosen with an eye to variety across eras and themes. My hope is that we’ll all get a fresh glimpse into new worlds through these pages and be inspired and entertained along the way. Now just add some sunny weather, a cool drink, and uninterrupted time to read!
By the time this blogpost/podcast hits the airwaves I have no doubt you’ll be very familiar with this choice. Lessons in Chemistry has spent all of its young life on the bestseller and recommended lists, far and wide, unanimously celebrated. Bonnie Garmus is a debut author (at 65 years old) whose story was picked up for publication in 35 countries – impressive! If you liked Eleanor and Bernadette of Eleanor Oliphant or Where’d You Go Bernadette? you’ll most certainly enjoy Elizabeth Zott of Lessons in Chemistry. Despite her quirky outspokenness and her identity as an advanced scientific researcher, Elizabeth becomes a reluctant TV cooking show personality of the early 1960s. You’ll delight in plenty of chuckles but there’s surprising poignancy and social commentary and personal growth in the story as well. Elizabeth has a charming supporting cast of characters including a very special dog. This is a great summer read – any time of the year!
I’m sure you may wonder at times how I narrow down my book choices, especially when the selection may be a little bit off the radar as this one appears to be. In this case, it was simple, I encountered the paragraph below and was had. I don’t think I can really improve upon it so I’m sharing!
“It was Rachel Signer’s dream to be that girl: the one smoking hand-rolled cigarettes out the windows of her 19th-century Parisian studio apartment, wearing second-hand Isabel Marant jeans and sipping a glass of Beaujolais redolent of crushed roses with a touch of horse mane. Instead she was an under-appreciated freelance journalist and waitress in New York City, frustrated at always being broke and completely miserable in love. When she tastes her first pétillant-naturel (pét-nat for short), a type of natural wine made with no additives or chemicals, it sets her on a journey of self-discovery, both deeply personal and professional, that leads her to Paris, Italy, Spain, Georgia, and finally deep into the wilds of South Australia and which forces her, in the face of her “Wildman,” to ask herself the hard question: can she really handle the unconventional life she claims she wants?” (Hachette) Cheers!
If you’re a regular reader of Bedside Table Books, you’ll know that I’ve been singing the praises of essay collections as a way to re-boot one’s reading or to embrace variety. I recently stumbled upon two terrific pieces of writing, independent of one another, and discovered that by chance they were both selections in this Letters to a Stranger collection. I knew instantly that the connecting themes of brief encounters/missed connections/moments of shared humanity would be perfect for deep Summer sighing and if these two examples were any indication, the reading would all be excellent. 65 great writers have shared their experiences with strangers – you’ll encounter names like Maggie Shipstead, Lauren Groff, Pico Iyer … Can’t wait to savour this collection!
Another debut receiving a lot of positive attention, We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies is a multi-generational saga which begins in Chinese occupied Tibet of the late 1950s and follows a family’s refugee experience through to modern-day Toronto. Family connections impacted by displacement, threatened cultural identity, and the haunting of harsh experiences are the basis of this compelling story. While author Tsering Yangzom Lama was born and raised in Nepal, she has strong ties to Vancouver and a BA in Creative Writing & International Relations from UBC. She followed that up with an MFA (Columbia) These descriptives taken from a wide array of blurbs are pretty convincing that this is some very fine writing: “achingly beautiful” “symphonic” “transcendent” “a marvel” and “magnificently textured”. Wow. I’m really looking forward to this one.
There is a particular delight in the discovery of a story that has been hiding away in the archives just waiting to be celebrated. Thanks to Kianna Alexander’s writerly curiosity, we are now able to enjoy a story inspired by one remarkable Josephine N. Leary. Leary was a freed black woman, born into slavery on a Southern Plantation in the 1800s. As a wife, mother, and entrepreneur, she overcame an incredible number of challenges but used her savvy financial management and investment skills to build an impressive real estate empire. A feat at anytime but particularly in the early 1900s. Kianna Alexander researched deeply into her fellow North Carolina native’s story and the result is this exciting new novel, based on Leary’s life.
I really don’t need to say much more than “Geraldine Brooks” to flag this one. Brooks has several hugely successful and popular reads under her belt and each one is a unique and fascinating tale based on extraordinary research. Think: Year of Wonders (worth re-visiting with present day pandemic context), Caleb’s Crossing, March, and People of the Book among others. Horse, released June 14th, 2022, grows out of more impeccable research, and links three stories through different eras all tied to the famous race horse “Lexington”. “A discarded painting in a junk pile, a skeleton in an attic, and the greatest racehorse in American history: from these strands, a Pulitzer Prize winner braids a sweeping story of spirit, obsession, and injustice across American history.” (Goodreads) As she has in previous novels, the author has provided a fascinating Afterword. Don’t skip those pages!
June 10, 2022
So I heard a phrase the other day and it gave me pause. “Palate cleanser” but used with regard to reading. As in a palate cleanser between books. A way to refresh your reading mind. While in the world of fine dining this may manifest as a cool and citrusy taste distraction between heavier courses, in the book world, perhaps it is something more light and less demanding of one’s brain. Or simply a diversion from a particular course.
I read a few books (all good) back to back that each just happened to feature a quirky but charming older gentleman. It was time for something entirely different so I broke the chain with something lighter and featuring a quite different cast of characters, themes and mood. I’ve chatted with a few of you seeking respite from World War II themes, thriller mania, and celebrity memoirs. For others, those may be the “sorbet”! Have you fallen into a pattern? Do you find yourself reaching for a common theme? Maybe it’s time to cleanse and challenge yourself with something new!
A book that really stood on its own as almost uncategorizable and was hugely enjoyable for me was Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce. It was also one of my 2020 Holiday Book recommendations. Great palate cleanser potential! Any other highly palatable palate cleansers you’ve found?
June 5, 2022
This little blog seems to come in waves; I land on the shore when I have good goodies I can’t resist sharing. “Oh Reader magazine – For the Love of Reading“ is one such goodie. I’m here to encourage you to take a peek into its pages – you won’t be disappointed!
The magazine’s editors probably best describe its mission: “Oh Reader is not so much about books themselves (although we do love them with almost indecent fervor); it’s more about the lives of those who read them. Because the books we read shape who we are as people.
Oh Reader is a magazine about reading, for and by readers. It looks deep into the art of reading—why we do it, how it affects us, who we are when we read, and how we’re all connected through words.
Expect insightful stories, hilarious observations, fascinating interviews and a lot of word-nerdery. We publish four times a year, in print and online, so you can read any time.”
A great gift for the book lover in your life but be sure to treat yourself too. Each edition is entirely unexpected. Some recent features I enjoyed include: love stories established on a shared love of reading and traveling, odes to the likes of Nancy Drew, Roald Dahl, and Judy Blume, grateful tributes to the words that got one through a tough time, photo essays featuring reading chairs and books and beverages, and always a shout-out to new releases for the ever expanding list.
The magazine is printed on beautiful paper with lovely illustrations and photos throughout so a real life copy is my preference but digital options are available as well. Hope you can find a copy for your bedside table. (Locally, I have had success finding issues at Save-On Foods of all places! Well done, Save-On!) Happy to become an old-fashioned subscriber to this one though.
October 8, 2021
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.
October 4, 2021
Under these covers, it’s all the same. Does the cover influence your decision to select and read a book? Just a little food for thought. These are books that all look good to me but I may be more inclined to choose one cover over another. Typically, the North American and the United Kingdom covers vary. And sometimes, the UK and Canadian versions are the same while the US version differs. And let’s not even get started on Down Under. It’s all a matter of marketing! Apparently, tastes are different in different parts of the world. Any preferences? Can you tell which is destined for which market?
September 19, 2021
Our first big soggy storms of the season have hit now and the above quote from the pages of Bella Grace seems a good fit.
As Summer winds down I find myself reflecting on my reading over the last few months. I’ve realised not all of my best reading has been within the pages of actual books. While my Summer Reading List and all of its associated best intentions may be less accomplished this year, I actually feel I’ve discovered some of the best writing I’ve read in a long while; small joys found unexpectedly. It’s all been book-related though and may lead to even more book reading so don’t ever think I’ve gone cold on my beloved caressable pages!
And so, as we hunker down on a dreary day, I am sharing a few of those unexpected joys of reading I encountered this Summer (may all the links connect forever and ever!) Each of these lovely finds deserves a blog post of its own but for now, please be introduced, tap on the links, and enjoy.
Rob Walker – The Art of Noticing – The Art of Noticing is a book but the newsletter associated with it has grown legs of its own and is a worthy addition to any inbox; so many pondering prompts within. I loved a piece written about the interesting conversations we may be missing due to our dependence on Google. One regular feature is called Dictionary of Missing Words in which we’re asked to pay attention to the “sensations, concepts, feelings, slippery things – that could be named but don’t seem to be” For instance: “The feeling you have when hearing the garbage truck outside and you haven’t put the garbage can at the curb yet …” Rob Walker The Art of Noticing Newsletter
Katherine Centre – Katherine Centre is a novelist whose books (Things you Save in A Fire, How to Walk Away) are colourfully queued up in my TBR pile. The gorgeous covers alone! Sigh. I became more motivated than ever to read her books after encountering her essay: The Joy of Reading. Read the whole thing because I guarantee you’ll love it but here’s a little glimpse: “Because stories are, at their cores, emotion machines. They can make us laugh, make us cry, make us angry, make us fall in love, make our hearts sprint with fear. They distill human experience, and capture its meaning, and connect us to our humanity like nothing else can. They are the closest thing we have to magic.” Find the essay here on her website.
Ann Patchett – We know her and love her for Bel Canto, State of Wonder, The Dutch House… and I yearn to visit her bookshop Parnassus Books in Nashville. Her fresh essays in The New Yorker and Harper’s were a Covid era delight for me and for so many others. I beseech thee, pour the tea and sit down for a spell to read these heart wrenchingly beautiful essays.
Cup of Jo Blog – I stumbled upon this blog over a decade ago. We were all new to blogging then and Joanna Goddard seemed to have an early grip on what it was all about. She has built an awesome (in the true sense of the word: eliciting awe) community of readers who comment freely and often and without fear of judgement. The comments are abundant because Joanna, beyond her own candid insightful writing, has gathered a stable of extraordinary writers and essayists who prompt unbridled engagement with their contributions. Oh, you’ll have the window opened to makeup trends and fashion faux pas and learn what to feed a vegan in 30 minutes or less but the real meat (if I dare say) of the site is in the honest and perceptive writing about small moments in Life. I respect and enjoy every one of the writers but Caroline Donofrio inevitably strikes a chord. Here are two of her Cup of Jo essays that I consider keepers: (And don’t forget to read the comments!)
Kelly Corrigan – Kelly is an idol. She communicates the truth of so many in a disarmingly genuine way. I have read and loved every one of her books (The Middle Place, Lift, Glitter and Glue, Tell Me More) and now, her podcast and TV show are musts too. I will wind up this far-too-lengthy post with a video link to a speech (subtitles can count as reading too!) given by Kelly. The conclusion might just be the best part (tissues required). The Walker School Commencement Speech.
(A reminder that this post is riddled with links – connect with any/all of the recommendations by clicking on the bold text)