Summer Reads 2022

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!

 

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

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!

 

You Had Me at Pet-Nat – A Natural Wine-soaked Memoir by Rachel Signer

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!

 

Letters To a Stranger: Essays to the Ones Who Haunt Us by Colleen Kinder

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!

 

We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies by Tsering Yangzom Lama

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.

 

Carolina Built: A Novel by Kianna Alexander

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. 

 

Horse by Geraldine Brooks

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!

A New Year

January 30, 2022

Is it? Still? A new year? I’m hanging on to the “new” in New Year and its associated sense of optimism and hope for as long as I can!

Gemma Correll‘s illustration, “Is this the most January January ever?”, made me laugh. There definitely seems to be a general malaise afoot as 2022 gets rolling. Conversations I’ve had with fellow readers have reflected this. Due to the mood, there is a prevalent sense of disappointment &/or frustration from an inability to focus on reading with the ease we have in the past. I’ve felt it too. I admire those who have been able to embrace a Pandemic pause in their lives to devour bigger books and more pages than ever. My books-per-month count may be way down but I have found a new appreciation for essays and short stories. It seems writers and publishers have as well – there are so many new collections on the shelves and more to come. If you’re struggling with getting into a novel, why not dip a toe into a book of essays or stories? There are many genres but here are a few that may lighten the mood or distract you with intriguing thoughts.

I Miss You When I Blink: Essays by Mary Laura Philpott – Sometimes when all the news articles seem to be too much one needs a little escape. This collection from a charming, self-professed Type A-overthinker, abounds with humour and poignancy. Philpott writes self-deprecatingly but honestly and often with a wink. Marriage, parenthood, big life moments, and more importantly, the little moments all feature.

The Souvenir Museum by Elizabeth McCracken – I’ve yet to read McCracken’s work but feel strongly pulled to dive in. She is the only reader Ann Patchett apparently trusts for input on a manuscript. Now that’s an endorsement for having an understanding of words! “With sentences that crackle and spark and showcase her trademark wit, McCracken traces how our closely held desires—for intimacy, atonement, comfort—bloom and wither against the indifferent passing of time. Her characters embark on journeys that leave them indelibly changed—and so do her readers.

The Book of Delights by Ross Gay – “A volume of lyric essays” in which poet Ross Gay shares “a daily essay about something delightful – an essayette” . The Crow’s Ablutions, and Flowers in the Hands of Statues, Loitering, and The Sanctity of Trains just a few titles among the 102 included here. Plenty of quick little reads to make you pause with a gentle hmmmm or a giggle. Truly delightful. Perhaps this will serve as inspiration to slow our pace and notice the delights we encounter in our own days.

Midlife Bites: Anyone Else Falling Apart or Is It Just Me? by Jen Mann – Jen Mann is a popular blogger, known for writing with humour about home life with kids and the crazy-making expectations that bombard us. Her epic “Overachieving Elf on the Shelf Mommies” rant went wildly viral and gathered her a fervent following among the more “realistic” mom-set. Now Jen has taken her truth telling to the mid-life crisis and her wry humour is hitting a nerve yet again. “I inhaled this book in one sitting; it’s a must-read for anyone over forty. This should become the gift all girlfriends give one another.”—Zibby Owens, host of the award-winning podcast Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books

Binge: 60 Stories to Make your Brain Feel Different by Douglas Coupland – Feels like it’s been a while since we’ve had something from this creative thinking icon. I’m intrigued by the title alone and look forward to giving this a try. “The characters, of course, are Doug’s own: crackpots, cranks and sweetie-pies, dad dancers and perpetrators of carbecues. People in the grip of unconscionable urges; lonely people; dying people; silly people. If you love Doug’s fiction, this collection is like rain on the desert.” (goodreads)

The Joy of Small Things by Hannah Jane Parkinson – Happy focused vignettes by a young English writer on topics as wide-ranging as Finding Lost Things, Fonts, Pockets, The Smell of Wood and Being Inside When its Raining. Many of these pieces appeared in her very popular column in the Guardian newspaper. Hard to decide whether to fly through them all in one sitting or dole out just a few deep sigh worthy moments at a time.

The Most of Nora Ephron – Our beloved Nora wrote some of the most enjoyable, funny, challenging, and poignant essays of our time. Two collections, I Feel Bad About My Neck and I Remember Nothing are included in this recently released compilation of ALL of Nora’s writings. Screenplays, novels, essays, blogposts … they are all here in one “most” impressive collection. “Readers will admire their literary heroine even more when … they discover, or are reminded, of the brave positions she took, and of how far her preoccupations and her writing ranged.” —Francine ProseThe New York Review of Books

These Precious Days by Ann Patchett – I read this lovely collection over the holidays; it was a favourite gift. Ann always inspires with her way of seeing the world and some of these essays will remain with me always. A great thing about essays is that they are more easily re-readable. I can see keeping this on a nearby shelf and re-visiting on down the road and finding new gems that emerge with the passing of time and a change in perspective. Highly recommend.

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.

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
 

Twenty or so years ago, the creative home improvement reality shows we’ve come to love were just getting started on TV and the initiator of them all, the Belle of the Ball, was Debbie Travis (The Painted House to start …). She brought her effervescent personality and her zesty sense of humour to the mix along with her sponges and designer’s eye, providing the perfect formula for the legions of others who followed in her footsteps.

Not only did Debbie (along with her husband Hans) create an empire of TV production, home decor and paint products, books, speaking engagements etc., she, at the same time, was mother to two busy little boys. When she noticed an increased fixation among her fans on how she was managing family and firm, she responded by writing a wonderful book called Not Guilty: My Guide to Working Hard Raising Kids and Laughing Through the Chaos. I think the title says it all!

Just because we haven’t seen Debbie on TV as often in recent years, doesn’t mean she hasn’t been her usual busy and creative self. In fact, she had a bit of an epiphany and had an utter reinvention. In short form, inspired by Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun, Debbie and Hans purchased a rundown villa in Italy and set to restoring it as a boutique hotel with a vision to Debbie hosting themed women’s retreats for starters. Of course, they’ve done it all beautifully. See Tuscan Getaway for a glimpse. I see now that Olive Oil, Lavender products and Wine sales have evolved from the groves, fields, and vines. Ever the business mind!

Fortunately for us, Debbie was again inspired to share the knowledge she gained along the path. The new book (recently released in paperback) is called Design Your Next Chapter: How to Realize your Dreams and Reinvent Your Life. It is a very personal account of her own recognition, in her early 50s, that she needed a change. The tools and exercises she (and her important friends and guides) found to help her choose and forge a new path are offered in the book. Stories of others who’ve dreamt and then pursued new directions are also featured. It’s a delightful memoir, a workbook and an inspiring self-help guide all in one! I would say, beyond her boisterous Brit humour, Debbie’s best qualities are her honesty and her easy-to-relate-to demeanour. You’ll read this and feel like you just walked the seawall with a best pal – the advice is that good and the tone that encouraging!

A bonus and a perfect companion read, Frances Mayes’ recent novel, Women In Sunlight, may well be inspired by one of Debbie’s women’s retreats. And if all of these gorgeous descriptions of the Italian people and countryside still aren’t enough for you, read the newest travel guide releases by Mayes called See You In the Piazza: New Places to Discover in Italy  and Always Italy with Ondine Cohane.

Hand Drawn Vancouver

June 23, 2020

 

In a Summer where we’re being encouraged to stay close to home, how wonderful to have a new guidebook of sorts to help us explore our nearby neighbourhoods. If you’ve become too comfortable being housebound, this might be just the inspiration you need to get out there and investigate.

Illustrator and writer, Emma Fitzgerald has imaginatively captured scenes of little pockets around the city of Vancouver and included conversations with those she’s encountered or overheard. Her work has been described as “part sketchbook, part journal” by the Globe and  Mail and we like both. We’re also big on “Whimsical” and “Charming” here at BTB and this promises each in abundance.  I’m particularly fond of the storefronts and streetscapes captured in Emma’s drawings as we know, all too well, that the city is changing and these may be the nostalgic views we’ll treasure most in the future.

This little story explains the source of Emma’s inspiration: “My daily commute to school, an hour each way in the backseat of the car, was an education in the geography of the city. We passed through Dundarave and Ambleside, stalled in traffic at Park Royal, went over the Capilano River Reserve while crossing the Lions Gate Bridge, and then were momentarily surrounded by trees in Stanley Park. It was often a quick drive through the West End and Downtown, seemingly before anyone else was awake, then over the Burrard or sometimes Granville Bridge, through Kitsilano, all the way to Dunbar—only to do it all in reverse at the end of the day. Looking out of the window, I discovered that each neighbourhood had its own unique architecture and population, and they became endlessly interesting to me.” 

While Emma mostly grew up in Vancouver, she also spent some time studying and living in Halifax. She successfully captured that city in Hand Drawn Halifax. Rumour has it that she’s now in Victoria and exploring that city for its own Hand Drawn edition. We’ll have to stay tuned!

 

 

 

These are beautiful coffee table books through the pages of which we can vicariously travel to traditionally dreamy domains of Summer. Coffee Table Books are not easy on the wallet, unless you compare them to the cost of the tickets to travel, yet they are a wonderful way to savour beautiful photography and design. I have a healthy little collection focused on travel and design and art and I enjoy visiting the titles often. They are indeed “trippy”! I don’t put them on my coffee table, however, lest someone spill the coffee.

Summer to Summer: Houses by the Sea is a new one, being released today in fact. It features the stories and photos of a selection of gorgeous homes along the North East Coast of the United States. The area really is a mecca for stunning Summer home architecture. Even if you are lucky enough to visit the region, you can’t always get inside the homes – through these pages you can! “All we need to do is settle back, kick off our shoes, and let the sun-kissed pages of Summer to Summer wash over us.” (publisher)

Summertime is colourfully filled with images that represent the epitome of an ideal summer; 46 different photographers share places that are lodged in their summer memories. Evocative quotes and summery reflections by literary icons are sprinkled among the photographs and there is true sense of nostalgia throughout. Joanne Dugan, the editor of this lovely book, writes: “It turns out that my first summer love was not a person but a place.” Read a mood-setting excerpt here.

Summer Houses by the Sea: The Shingle Style focuses on perhaps the most iconic design of a traditional summer home. Shingled summer homes “are an expression of the romantic longing for the sea.” (publisher) While this one may be more of an architectural study than a seasonal celebration, its photographic pages will still give you a sense of summer days spent in some treasured historic homes as well as in some newer shingled havens. You’ll learn a little in this one but the dreamy summer journey will be there too.

 

Summer Reads 2020

June 9, 2020

Art by Charlie Mackesy

The Summer Reads list is a bit of a tradition here at Bedside Table Books and started as a way to help you make choices to fill your seasonal book bag. You won’t find Dostoevsky on this list (sorry, Fyodor!) but you will hopefully, without too much effort, travel the world a little bit with some interesting folks, learn a little here and there, have a good laugh and maybe even get a chill down your spine.  I’ve researched and narrowed down a mountain of choices to these few. I’ll be digging in soon and hope you’ll join me. If you have found an ideal Summer Read yourself, feel free to share it with us.

The Penguin Lessons by Tom Michell – A memoir of a young man and his penguin. How’s that for a unique start?! A young Englishman heads for South America to teach at a boarding school and on a weekend adventure finds himself rescuing a penguin who insists on sticking around.

When All Is Said by Anne Griffin – An elderly Irishman spends an evening at a hotel bar, making five toasts to five influential people in his life. This one might be your rainy day read as it seems reflective and bittersweet but by all accounts features a well written character who will remain with you. “If you had to pick five people to sum up your life, who would they be? If you were to raise a glass to each of them, what would you say? And what would you learn about yourself, when all is said?”

Last Days of Cafe Leila by Donia Bijan – There are many tales of people leaving Iran but few telling the story of returning. In this novel, a woman leaves San Francisco to return to Tehran and her family and the restaurant that has been their business for three generations. She brings her teen daughter and together they explore themes of change and family.  Refinery 29 says, “… a love letter to family, food and culture.”  I thought it interesting that the author is an award-winning Chef and former restaurateur – so many reviews mention how beautifully the Persian food features.

The Summer Country by Lauren Willig – This one travels in time and location, to Victorian era Barbados. A family saga, epic in scale, set in the Caribbean of the 1800s. Comparisons to the Thorn Birds had me convinced if the gorgeous cover art hadn’t already. A young woman surprisingly inherits, from her grandfather, a sugar plantation that no one even knew existed. The plantation, or what remains of it, has stories (romance, ghosts!) that must be explored. So many good reviews and apparently one to really sink into and savour.

Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok – I absolutely loved the author’s first book, Lost in Translation, and so am really looking forward to this one. A Chinese immigrant family’s hidden story is revealed as a younger sister goes looking for her elder sister who’s mysteriously disappeared in the Netherlands. Suspense and secrets and sisters … sounds simple but it’s complicated! 

Wild Horses of the Summer Sun by Tory Bilski –  A group of women, initially unknown to one another, meet annually to escape from their regular lives to ride horses in Iceland. The author recounts stories of her annual trip, her companions (four footed and two) and the extraordinary setting while exploring themes of identity, aging, friendship, freedom … “Filled with adventure and fresh humor, as well as an incredible portrait of Iceland and its remarkable equines, Wild Horses of the Summer Sun will enthrall and delight not just horse lovers, but those of us who yearn for a little more wild in everyday life.”  Paperback will be released in August. I’ll be in line!

Grown Ups by Marian Keyes –  Beloved Irish writer, Marian Keyes, takes on life and all its foibles with equal doses of humour and poignancy in her fiction and non-fiction. This one is a big juicy novel featuring a fancy family who becomes a bit unraveled when one member’s concussion causes her to become a little too unfiltered. The revelations cause the extended family to have to “grow up”. Along with the hilarity is some complexity in the lives of well-crafted characters.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett – Already an accomplished author of The Mothers, Brit Bennett’s newest book was released on June 2nd into a world that could not be more ready to receive it. By all accounts this is an impressively written and important book. Identical twins escape their small town together but choose different paths in life, one as a black woman and the other, passing as white. The story moves forward through the 1950s to the 1990s, on to the next generation, and boldly examines the historical and social influences on their lives. Book clubs are going to be leaping for this one.

We Came Here to Shine by Susie Orman Schnall – You may recall Susie’s last book, The Subway Girls, appeared on a previous Summer list. Susie takes inspiration from a moment in history, does extensive research for true authenticity, and weaves stories featuring intrepid heroines. The historical inspiration for this latest book was The 1939 New York World’s Fair. Two feisty young women are working at the Fair, both in positions beneath their aspirations and limited by the biased environment around them. They form a friendship which provides support and gives them courage to face their challenges. Susie describes the Fair meticulously and more than one reviewer described the book as “cinematic” with the Fair itself acting as a prominent character. 

Beach Read by Emily Henry – This seems poised to be the runaway beach bag hit for the summer. Very generous reviews and apparently more depth to it than the cover might suggest. An acclaimed writer of Literary Fiction is spending the summer at a beach house. Next door is a bestselling Romance writer. Each is suffering from severe writer’s block and so begins the tale of them challenging each other to bust out of the creative doldrums. The witty banter, Lake Michigan in the summer, and a little romantic frisson evidently adds up to excellent summer entertainment.

Saturdays at Noon by Rachel Marks – “Endearing, emotional and uplifting” The reviews for this book are outstanding. Circumstances bring a father and son to an Anger Management class where they engage with a young woman, also enrolled. Neither adult is especially fond of the other but a bond develops between the young woman and the boy who happens to be on the Autism spectrum and the story evolves from there. This is Rachel Marks’ first book and her inspiration came from her struggles in understanding her own son’s autistic behaviours. She writes exceptionally well and also from a place of true empathy for the characters’ experiences. 

The New Girl by Harriet Walker – This is the goosebumps contribution.  A psychological thriller in which a freelance journalist is brought in to cover the maternity leave of an accomplished fashion magazine editor. The temp plays at assuming the so-called perfect lifestyle of the editor in her absence while the new mother, responding to a few triggers, becomes highly suspicious and paranoid. Is it an innocent game or is something sinister at work? 

 

This has never been a place for politics; you come here to find out about books, reading and things bookish. This will always be a place for empathy though. One of the best ways, I find, to develop empathy is through our reading choices. Today’s post was going to be about travelling through books to experience new cultures when our ability to actually travel is limited. After the events of the past week, I felt a journey into race related reading was more merited. Jane Mount, whose work I’ve featured before, has nicely captured a very important reading list. I invite you to explore her Anti-Racism titles and to travel into these worlds if they’re not familiar to you already. (Click on image to see the titles more clearly)

Over the past year or so I’ve also read the following highly recommendable books.(Click on covers to learn more) In each of these novels there was at least one reference or scene where I found myself thinking, “Hmmm, I’d never considered that.” I appreciate any book that offers a different perspective. I feel it is my responsibility to choose books that educate as well as entertain. Feel free to share any suggestions you have where you’ve been challenged to think in new ways, especially with relation to race.

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Ok,  “Anonymous” commenter – this one’s for you.  I can’t resist responding to a “Quick, I need a book recommendation!” plea … These are the books that stood out to me in the last year or so of reading. Hope you find something that sparks your interest. Feel free to add your own recent favourites in the Comments.

The Braid by Laetitia Colombani – A creatively structured story of three women living across the globe from one another, in vastly different circumstances, whose tales become entwined in poignant ways. Not widely promoted for some reason but a special find. I hope more readers get to enjoy it.

From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily and Finding Home by Tembi Locke – I simply adored this. I wasn’t expecting the writing to be so evocative but there were moments to stop and savour throughout. You will smell the Sicilian soil and tomatoes, I promise! An emotional story but told without high drama, just tenderly and respectfully shared. I don’t re-read very often (so many books, so little time) but am tempted already to re-visit this one.

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins –  A juggernaut of positive promotion preceded its publication, Oprah blessed it too, but then controversy set in. I’ll leave you to the Googling to learn more about the politics but my experience as a reader was absolutely positive. I was captivated by the storytelling and found it to be a fascinating portrayal of a mother and son’s bond while bravely fleeing terrifying circumstances. I suggest reading the Author’s Note first. When I learned of the author’s inspiration for the story, I could personally reconcile any concerns raised among the naysayers.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee – A big thank you to KM for this recommendation. A juicy big multi-generational saga set over several decades in Korea and Japan. An immigrant journey and a family story that is epic in scale and yet intimate in its portrayal of each character. Engrossing.

I Miss You When I Blink by Mary Laura Philpott – Sometimes when all the news articles seem to be too much, the reading of a personal essay can be a pleasant, just as brief, escape. This collection from a charming, self-professed Type A-overthinker, abounds with humour and poignancy. Philpott writes self-deprecatingly but honestly and often with a wink. Marriage, parenthood, big life moments, and more importantly, the little moments all feature.

The Stationery Shop by Marjan Kamali – A stationery shop in Tehran in the tumultuous 1950s provides the setting for a young love to ignite. The romance is complicated by politics, culture and family but the love remains intensely felt for a lifetime. An emotional story of paths taken and not taken – a really heart wrenching journey but so worth the read.

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal – Don’t let the title scare you away (or make you overly giddy for that matter!) This is a wonderful story of a writing group for Punjabi widows that takes a bit of an entertaining turn. I get so many requests for “funny book” recommendations and this one has lovely humour, though it has some feisty adventure in it too. In fact, I was surprised by the unexpected depth. Looking forward to Jaswal’s next work.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean – AN thoughtfully gifted this to me and I looked forward to an interesting non-fiction foray. But let me tell you, I was not expecting this to be as riveting a tale as it was. Wow. I was fascinated by each of the many threads that Orlean wove together. It could be considered an academic account but it reads like a page-flipping novel. The essence of the story begins with the 1986 Los Angeles library fire and then fans out to explore the life of the suspected arsonist, the history of the library – its architecture and the people who were part of its soul over the years. This was written by a lover of reading, and this lover of reading approves!

An Invisible Thread by Laura Schroff – Homelessness is a social condition that intimidates many people. In this memoir, Laura Schroff writes honestly about her own lack of understanding and how, through a simple gesture that grew, her life was changed by a young boy on the streets of New York City. Reminiscent of The Blind Side, this is an inspirational story that will stick with you.

Belgravia by Julian Fellowes – The word “romp” keeps coming forth whenever I describe this book. It reminds me of one of those Oscar Wilde plays, a comedy of manners, where everyone is dancing around everyone else and we’re only in on half of the story until it all pieces together in the end with a few wily maneuvers that leave you gasping and snickering. Julian Fellowes is of course the creator of the Downton Abbey antics and this, too, has become televised in the UK. The book was such fun, I can only imagine the TV series will be too.

Turbulence by David Szalay – A slim little chapter book oh-so-creatively pieced together and beautifully written. You know one of my favourite books of all time is Let the Great World Spin and this has a little sprinkle of that fairy dust. A passenger on a plane (you know, in the olden days) converses with his neighbouring seatmate. That seatmate goes on to have another conversation in a different city and so on and so on. The story winds around the globe and back again connecting regular people in extraordinary ways.

The Waiting Hours by Shandi Mitchell – The world of first responders doesn’t often appear in mainstream novels and so this was an interesting world in which to travel. With elements of suspense and heart wrenching emotion, it provides a glimpse into the challenge of processing trauma, personally and professionally. A Canadian writer who has also written Under This Unbroken Sky.

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