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.

Reflections on Reading

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.

My Three Fathers

These Precious Days

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!)

Do You Have a Not-so-Strange Stranger?

How to Stand Still

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)

As promised, I’m back with a few more titles to consider for your Summer reading pile. We’ll continue with glimpses into different worlds and special relationships but some of these six might be considered a little lighter. Chime in and let us know what you’ve enjoyed and if there is another title you’d like to share.

The Funny Thing About Norman Foreman by Julietta Henderson

Norman Foreman is a young fellow who’s just lost a best friend. The twelve year olds had been making big plans to take their comedy show on the road to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival when Jax died and Norman is determined to still make the trip in honour of his friend. However, Jax was the funny one so there might be some cringe at the Fringe. Norman’s other loss is a father he’s never known. Mom decides she needs to step up and help Norman with his grief and need for closure. Loading themselves into a Mini with a neighbouring friend, they set off on an epic road trip from Cornwall to Edinburgh that inspires and warms the heart. Another debut novel that promises to gift you a memorable, beloved character in Norman. “Tender and hilarious.” “Moving and funny.

Come Fly the World: The Jet Age Story of the Women of Pan Am by Julia Cooke

This one might be well under the radar for most Summer read seekers as it’s located in the History and PoliSci section. However, this looks to me to be an enthralling read, any season. Journalist and travel writer Julia Cooke, whose father was a Pan Am executive, delves into the jet age heyday, the Pan Am brand, its significant cultural and historical contributions and the women who crewed and contributed to its success. Following the stories of a select few of these women, the author reveals a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes of the iconic carrier and the time in history. (The Vietnam War, Operation Babylift, Women’s Liberation … ) While weight, height make-up and grooming guidelines were fierce and strongly enforced, at the same time, the Pan Am “stewardess” was sophisticated and seeking to make an impact on an international scale. “Throughout the 1960s, a full 10 percent of Pan Am stewardesses had attended graduate school — a stunning figure at a time when only 6 to 8 percent of American women even held a college degree.” So many trivia gems in this one I think! Kirkus Reviews writes: “An entertaining, insightful look into a gritty and glamorous era in air travel.”

Willa’s Grove by Laura Munson

“So now what?” That is the question to be answered by four women, each at a crossroads in her life. The women respond to a message saying “you are invited to the rest of your life” and gather at Willa’s Montana home for a week-long retreat to explore what lies ahead. Fears and regrets and indecision are overcome with the support of good conversation, friendship, and the great outdoors. Descriptions of the natural landscape are apparently beautifully depicted. Some readers have found the girl talk to be a bit much while others have been brought to tears by the poignancy of the story and give it rave reviews. If a little retreat to the country with the girls sounds appealing to you, Laura Munson will have written with an authentic perspective – she hosts writing retreats in Montana and has found great success doing so after overcoming some personal challenges of her own. “Willa’s Grove is an affirmation of creativity, sisterhood, and the power of belonging.” – Chelsea Cain

Good Eggs by Rebecca Hardiman

Let’s start with the back cover of this book: “The novel is sheer delight” “A joyous, exuberantly fun-filled novel of second chances” “Bracing, hilarious, and warm” “Pure unadulterated reading pleasure” A quick glance at all that cheer leaves this potential reader with high hopes for sure. A family in Dublin, Ireland is coming to terms with multigenerational shenanigans. Long out of work Dad is overwhelmed by his 83 year old mother who has a penchant for shoplifting and who’s fully committed to aging disgracefully. At the same time, one of the four children, a daughter, is up to some capers of her own and boarding school is looking like a likely option. A caretaker for Granny is hired to help improve the situation, however, she brings along a little hullaballoo of her own and grand adventures ensue for all the troublemakers. Light and fun methinks.

Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan

Mayflies seems to be the story that hits the heartstrings in a more emotional way. I heard a bookshop employee taking to the airwaves about the impact this novel had on him and I jotted down the title immediately; he couldn’t possibly have reviewed it more positively. Prizewinning author, Andrew O’Hagan atmospherically starts us off in 1986 with two friends in small town Scotland, graduating from school and vowing never to lead the lives of their fathers. They celebrate the dimming of their carefree youth with an unforgettable, magical weekend trip to Manchester. Music and film and youthful energy have bonded them and feature prominently in the tale. Years later, they are connected again but for less celebratory reasons. The story unfolds in essentially two parts, the exuberance of youth and the challenge of growing old. “A beautiful ode to lost youth and male friendship.” – Douglas Stuart, Shuggie Bain and from Hilary Mantel, “There is no page on which there is not something surprising or quotable or pleasurable or thought-provoking.”

Beyond the Point by Claire Gibson

Yet another debut by a young writer who’s putting her life experience to good use. The “Point” in Beyond the Point is West Point, the iconic US Military Academy. Author Claire Gibson, daughter of a military man, was born at West Point and spent a good part of her childhood on its campus while her father taught there. The experience had an enormous impact on her and, as a writer later in life, she knew she wanted to capture the experience but wasn’t sure exactly what that would look like. In 2013, Claire writes on her website, a friend from West Point contacted her and asked if she could share her experiences as a West Point grad and soldier with her. This initial conversation turned into multiple interviews with West Point women and Claire knew she had the inspiration for her novel. The story follows three West Point women and shines a light on their friendship and their courage as they share the demanding experience of military college and heartbreak in life in the world beyond. It’s a tribute to friendship and resilience. Claire’s website is fascinating unto itself; I can’t wait to read the book.

Wishing you all armloads of terrific books this Summer. Let’s circle back and share our thoughts after the pages have been flipped. Happy reading!

Great Minds

May 13, 2021

I’ve had a few “wait a minute!” moments of confusion at the bookshelves in recent times. On more than one occasion I’ve encountered an unfamiliar title or a new release and thought, “I’ve read about this one already” but alas, no. (And no, not middle age brain to blame for a change!)  It seems that sometimes great minds of writers simply think alike. Here are a few newish books that look great to me and happen to have been inspired by a shared theme. 

The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake

 

Vera by Carol Edgarian

“Set in San Francisco during the great quake and fire of 1906, this wonderfully compelling novel takes us deeply into the heart and mind of an unforgettable fifteen year old girl, one who must find her way alone through a mother’s neglect, through bordellos and corrupt politicians, through the debris and ashes of what was once “The Paris of the West.” Vera is that rare novel that you’ll want to buy for loved ones just as soon as you reach its shimmeringly beautiful ending. And its street-wise, resilient protagonist will stay with you for a very long time indeed.”

— Andre Dubus III

The Nature of Fragile Things by Susan Meissner

“In 1906, Irish immigrant Sophie marries a stranger and moves to San Francisco. There, she discovers a hidden connection to two other women — and when a devastating earthquake strikes, they must fight to survive. “Exceptional… Ingeniously plotted and perfectly structured, this captivates from beginning to end” (Publishers Weekly).”

– BookBub

 

Kentucky Packhorse Library Service

 

Giver of Stars by JoJo Moyes

“Based on the true story of the Pack Horse Library initiative — a Works Progress Administration project that ran from 1935 to 1943 and turned women and their steeds into bookmobiles — Moyes’s characters travel into the remote Eastern Kentucky mountains to deliver learning to the most isolated residents….’Giver of Stars’ is a celebration of love, but also of reading, of knowledge, of female friendship, of the beauty of our most rural corners and our enduring American grit: the kind of true grit that can be found in the hills of Kentucky and on the pages of this inspiring book.

– Washington Post

Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson

“Kim Michele Richardson has written a fascinating novel about people almost forgotten by history: Kentucky’s pack-horse librarians and “blue people.” The factual information alone would make this book a treasure, but with her impressive storytelling and empathy, Richardson gives us so much more.”

– Ron Rash, New York Times bestselling author of One Foot in Eden and Serena

 

The Barbizon Hotel for Women

 

The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis

“Multigenerational and steeped in history, The Dollhouse is a story about women—from the clicking anxiety of Katie Gibbs’s secretaries to the willowy cool of Eileen Ford’s models, to honey-voiced hatcheck girls and glamorous eccentrics with lapdogs named Bird. Davis celebrates the women of New York’s present and past—the ones who live boldly, independently, carving out lives on their own terms.”

—Elizabeth Winder, author of Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953

Barbizon: the Hotel that Set Women Free by Paulina Bren

“With enough smoldering glamour to make Mad Men look dreary…Bren’s captivating book tells the story of this women’s residential hotel, from its construction in 1927 on Manhattan’s 140 East 63rd Street, to its eventual conversion into multimillion-dollar condominiums in 2007. But it is also a brilliant many-layered social history of women’s ambition and a rapidly changing New York throughout the 20th century.”

– The Guardian
 

Bookshop Love

April 24, 2021

Mitchell’s Book Corner, Nantucket

Today is Independent Book Shop Day – a day for taking time to consciously support those little independent shops in which we reliably find books, conversation, comfort and more. (Like puzzles. Or cards. And maybe romance if you’re a character in a book.)

Though many of us may secretly dream of being book shop owners, in reality it is a very few who have the gumption and the grit to successfully bring these dreams to life and then keep them alive in hard times. I, for one, am extremely grateful to all those independent book shop owners and employees who rise to the challenge every day. This last year has been a doozy and I have so admired the innovation shown by bookshop keepers around the world who have creatively committed to keeping the rest of us joyfully connected with books and writers despite not always being able to even open their doors. Thank you all!

As a little toast to our favourite bookshops, here is a list of novels with bookshop themes. There are hundreds more I'm sure (share any favourites I haven't listed) but these are all fairly recent. I have a hard time passing up a bookshop or a bookshop book!

I’ve been sitting on this good news like a hen on an Easter egg! Janice MacLeod has recently released a scrumptious new treasure in her Paris series. Dear Paris – The Paris Letters Collection is absolutely beautiful and its release into the world couldn’t possibly be more aptly timed. We’re starving for some inspiration for imaginative daydreaming and armchair travels and this little beauty will have you off to dreamy Paris in a sweet sunlit second. A work of art (actually pages and pages of sumptuous art) this book is the perfect gift for Easter, for Mother’s Day, for birthdays, for “I-deserve-a-treat!” Day … any occasion.

Longtime readers will remember my initial infatuation with Janice’s work when it began with this “Swooning” post way back in 2014. The writing, the artwork, the creativity, the glimpse into her adventurous life … all add up to must-read status for any of her books but this most recent, takes the gâteau. Before the books, there was her gorgeous written and illustrated letter subscription service. It’s still going strong over here on etsy. Dear Paris is a collection of 140 of the most lovely of these colourful letters and, in the Publisher’s words …

“For readers familiar with the city, Dear Paris is a rendezvous with their own memories, like the first time they walked along the Champs-Élysées or the best pain au chocolat they’ve ever tasted. But it’s about more than just a Paris frozen in nostalgia; the book paints the city as it is today, through elections, protests, and the World Cup—and through the people who call it home. Wistful, charming, surprising, and unfailingly optimistic, Dear Paris is a vicarious visit to one of the most iconic and beloved places in the world.

To Paris? Shall we? Mais oui!

Beverly Cleary

March 27, 2021

Anne Lamott once wrote: “Librarians and teachers should all be seated closest to the dessert table in Heaven.” Well, I hope Beverly Cleary, a librarian and the reason many of us became readers and writers, is pulled up right next to the biggest of all the cupcakes!

When I heard the news, I was swept right back to my lovely elementary school library where I can picture exactly where the Beezus, Ramona, Ribsy and Henry Huggins books were shelved. I can see, smell and feel those well-worn copies and oh, I loved them all dearly. I was more of a Beezus but I sure admired that pesky Ramona!

I suppose when one delights as many children as Beverly did, she is rewarded with an extra year, here and there. 104 of them for Beverly and now we’ll finally allow her to enjoy that cupcake. Thank you for the fond memories, Ms. Cleary, and for instilling in so many of us a love for good characters and a true lifelong joy of reading.

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!

Soon to be Released!

December 31, 2020

If your Christmas stocking featured a book shop gift card and you’re looking for spending inspiration or you want to get your name in early at the library, take a peek at these titles releasing in the next few weeks. 2021 is already shaping up to be a stellar book year! You will see some favourite writers in the midst along with a few new names (to me anyway). I have a burgeoning bedside table but know that I’ll be keeping an eye out for these too. 

Our Darkest Night by Jennifer Robson – Canadian Jennifer Robson has written several acclaimed novels based on historical events and eras. (The Gown, Somewhere in France, Moonlight Over Paris …) Her thorough research and ability to craft characters who capture our hearts leads me to believe this will be another winner. Set in Italy during the Second World War, and based on a true story, Our Darkest Night is “a compelling tale of bravery, perseverance, and the immeasurable power of love in the face of adversity.” (Kristin Beck) January 5/21

The Girl He Used to Know by Tracey Garvis Graves – Kind of cheating as this was actually first published in April 2019 but is about to be released in paperback. “… a compelling novel with beautifully rendered characters, an extraordinary tale filled with sensitivity and empathy that gives readers a peek into the world of autism through the eyes of a woman who proves to be as audacious as she is charming. Readers, don’t you dare miss this love story.” Descriptions make me think of a bit of a Queen’s Gambit vibe. Without the darkness and drinks! January 7/21

Better Luck Next Time by Julia Claiborne Johnson – “Better Luck Next Time crackles with wit and wisdom. This delightful novel of love and loss on a divorce ranch in Nevada during the Great Depression is poignant, hilarious, and, at times, achingly sad. I love this glorious book!” (Mary Pauline Lowry) Until the 1970s, Divorce ranches in Reno were destinations for those seeking a “quickie” divorce, granted after 6 weeks as a resident. Also known as getting Reno-vated! January 5/21

The Children’s Blizzard by Melanie Benjamin – The Children’s Blizzard was an actual epic storm that took place in January 1888 across the Midwest US. It came up suddenly and caught many school children, most of homesteading immigrant families, making their way home. “In this atmospheric novel, as relentlessly paced as a thriller, you experience the encroaching storm from many perspectives and, in the process, understand something important about the tenacity of the human spirit.” (Christina Baker Kline) January 12/21

The Last Garden of England by Julia Kelly – “Kelly’s novel encompasses everything I love in historical fiction: a dramatic setting depicted so vividly I could’ve sworn I was strolling through the gardens of Highbury House as I turned the pages, and a series of stories that intertwine each other effortlessly, echoing the theme of love lost and found. A delight.” (Fiona Davis) If that review doesn’t have you on your way to putting this on the shelf … grand English Manors and luscious gardens … done! Julia Kelly has also recently written the well reviewed, The Light Over London and The Whispers of War. January 12/21

That Old Country Music by Kevin Barry – Barry is an accomplished novelist and short-story writer with an exquisite gift for language. This is a collection of eleven short stories set among the characters and landscape of his native Ireland. This interview in the Paris Review (here) may give us a sense of the humour he is capable of incorporating into even sometimes darker tales. “I had to quit reading this book the first day I had it in my hands, just so I could have it to read the next day. It’s that good.” (Richard Ford) January 12/21

How the One Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones – Set in a Barbados resort community where conflicts among the beach dwellers and the well-off mansion owners simmer and a botched robbery has dramatic repercussions. “How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House is simply brilliant. By the first chapter, it burned into my heart. Ambitious, poetic, and layered with the rich voices of its many stunning characters, this terrific debut novel by Cherie Jones opened my eyes to the many ways that her young Barbadian protagonist must fight for her life.” (Lawrence Hill) January 26/21

The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah – The Nightingale and The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah are two of the most compelling reads I’ve experienced in recent years. This new novel is set in the 1930s Depression era and follows a woman making difficult decisions for her family while draught and despair surround her. I have no doubt that it will be at least as engaging as the earlier reads. “Hannah brings Dust Bowl migration to life in this riveting story of love, courage, and sacrifice…combines gritty realism with emotionally rich characters and lyrical prose that rings brightly and true from the first line –  (Publishers Weekly) February 2/21

Red Island House by Andrea Lee – Another one with an intriguing location and social challenges. “From National Book Award–nominated writer Andrea Lee, an epic, gorgeously evocative novel about love and identity, following two decades in the marriage between an African American professor and her wealthy Italian husband as it unfolds on the remote and mysterious island of Madagascar.” (Publisher) March 23/21

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