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!

 

 

 

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? 

 

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There is a special joy in seeing a new release by an author with whom you have earlier established a good fit. That zippy anticipation with any new book is more of a cosy feeling when it’s by an already favourite writer. Some universally “favourite” writers are emerging with new books in the coming months and I wanted to be sure you didn’t miss a beat. Jot these down and get ready to read! Let us know if you’ve discovered any favourite writers with a new work.

Edward Rutherfurd – Paris, April 23rd

I raved about Rutherfurd’s New York a few summers ago and I also enjoyed his London before that. In a style comparable to that of James Michener, Rutherfurd explores the history of a place – social, geographical, and beyond – by introducing readers to a fictional family and then following its members’ endeavours for a number of generations. I’m a big fan of these big books – truly sagas – and am delighted the next setting is Paris. Ooo la la!

Colum McCann – Transatlantic, June 4th

I can’t imagine narrowing down favourite book choices to a top 10 list but if I were forced to, Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin would be guaranteed a spot; definitely one of my favourite reads in recent times. I am therefore tickled pink that a new McCann read is on the horizon. As with Spin, this story weaves together several story-lines, some true-to life, and relates them in unexpected ways. While Manhattan was the setting in his last tale, this one connects North America with Ireland. Can’t wait – and love that cover!

Khaled Hosseini – And the Mountains Echoed, May 21st

There are very few shelves around without a copy of The Kite Runner. Its enormous success and popularity was followed by another winner, A Thousand Splendid Suns. Hosseini skillfully, and sensitively, introduced a generation of us to the realities of modern Afghanistan through his compelling characters and their stories. His novels also illuminated the universal ties of family across generations and this new one will explore this theme as well, from Kabul to Greece to the U.S. By all early-reader accounts, this one’s another keeper for the shelf.

Isabel Allende – Maya’s Notebook, Just published (April)

Isabel Allende is another family saga specialist with almost twenty popular fiction and non-fiction works to her name. Famously hailing from Chile, Allende writes novels that feature themes of the Latino experience – immigration, political upheaval, balancing South and North American identities, and the evolution of family and place over generations. Her latest book, just released, is more of a contemporary tale than some of her historical ones and blends the Chilean and American experiences in an engaging way.

Jeannette Walls – The Silver Star, June 11th

A sentimental favourite for her startling, and riveting, memoir The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls shared more of her family’s unique story with Half Broke Horses. Both were un-put-downable. The Silver Star is a novel, rather than memoir, and so follows a fictional arc.  The themes are familiar – extraordinary families, resilience, and ultimately, triumph.

Joseph Boyden – The Orenda, September 2013

A Canadian favourite, Boyden is known for his award-winning Three Day Road, and Through Black Spruce – beautifully evocative writing and emotionally-charged stories from the Native Canadian experience. His new novel is still a wee wait away but worth anticipating. This time, the setting begins in very early Canada and explores the meeting of traditional and emerging approaches to social, political and spiritual thought. Guaranteed good methinks.

Lauren Weisberger – Revenge Wears Prada, June 4th

This will appear in shops just as you’re busting out your beach bag so be sure to save room. The Devil Wears Prada had us all feeling titillatingly voyeuristic as the shocking behind-the-scenes dynamics of a famous fashion magazine were revealed – all fiction, of course. Substantial sport followed in imagining the true-life inspiration for the antics, just the same.  I’m always a champion of book over movie, but Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, and Emily Blunt shall always vividly remain the personification of Weisberger’s written characters. They’re back on the page in Revenge so buckle up for more hijinks.

Amy Tan – The Valley of Amazement, November 2013

Remember The Joy Luck Club? I think it was one of the first real book club favourites when it was released in, brace yourself, 1989! Tan followed her first novel with other successes, The Bonesetter’s Daughter, The Kitchen God’s Wife, and several more. This new story will similarly pursue the experience of several generations of Chinese women in China and North America – the intriguing world of Courtesans being the feature this time.  “Spanning fifty years and two continents, The Valley of Amazement is a deeply moving narrative of family secrets, the legacy of trauma, and the profound connections between mothers and daughters.” (goodreads) While you’re waiting, you might want to read Amy Tan’s  biographical notes – her personal story is a wild tale unto itself.

Reading Russian

February 19, 2012

Geographical trends seem to occur in books, don’t you find? For a while, there was a rash of “India” writing (A Suitable Boy,  A Fine Balance …) and then stories set in China or Hong Kong (Snowflower and the Secret Fan,  The Piano Teacher …) My former book club read a number of stories set in Africa until consensus had us move on – to the UK. Well, I’ve noted a recent trend to reading Russian. I read the classic Anna Karenina and Doctor Zhivago years ago but recently finished The True Memoirs of Little K and A Mountain of Crumbs – I enjoyed them all. Such an intriguing history and fascinating characters making their way through it. In only the past few months/weeks The Winter Palace, Catherine the Great, Enchantments, and The Little Russian have all been released. Each one looks appealing to me so it appears another literary trip to Russia could be in the works! (As usual, click on the image to be taken to a website with more information about the book.) Where have your books been taking you?

Geraldine Brooks ranks among my most favourite writers so I’m particularly excited to learn that her latest story, Caleb’s Crossing, is about to be released on May 3rd, 2011.  On with the track shoes and get ready to sprint out and snag a copy. As with the other Brooks books (say that three times fast) a great deal of research and creativity appears to have gone into the story. 

    

Inspired by a moment or character in history or a quirky piece of trivia, Geraldine Brooks then puts to good use her acclaimed journalism skills and exceptional imagination to create stunning tales. The Year of Wonders, probably my most favourite of her books though I’ve enjoyed them all,  imagines life in a quarantined village during the Great Plague. Sounds dire but it’s an absolutely fascinating study of human nature as well as a time in history. Do read it if you can – a great book club discussion book too. (Thanks to my pal Al for the original recommendation!) I wrote about another of her books, March, in an earlier posting you can refresh your memory with here. People of the Book , about the journey of a rare and mysterious manuscript through generations, also comes highly recommended.

Here is the trailer for Caleb’s Crossing which I am sure will convince you it is a must-read.

If You Liked …

January 8, 2011

The new year brings with it releases of some new titles by writers of some of our old favourites. These all look terrific to me and will no doubt be big book club hits. If you haven’t yet read the old ones, you have time to get caught up. So …

if you liked … you’ll be delighted by the new ….

    

Still Alice by Lisa Genova must be one of my most frequently recommended books in recent years; its poignancy has remained with me long after the last pages were read. While Still Alice followed Alzheimer’s from the perspective of the patient, Left Neglected, (released on January 4th, 2011) features the sufferer of a traumatic brain injury. (left neglect or hemi-spatial neglect refers to a lack of awareness of the left side of one’s body as a result of an injury to the right side of the brain) Not light stuff but as a Harvard Neuroscientist the author is more than prepared to shine some fascinating light on the world of the brain. She wrote that her first book wasn’t just about the illness but also “… about identity, about living a life that matters, about family and what a crisis does to relationships.”  In telling a story of the recovery of a Type A over-achieving working mother after a life-altering accident, Left Neglected promises to do the same.

    

I read The Memory Keeper’s Daughter while snuggled up in a ski cabin in a snowstorm which was suitable considering the opening scenes of the story take place in a wild snowstorm. Now I’m off to find a cabin by a lake as it appears a lake plays a pivotal role in Kim Edwards’ latest tale. The Memory Keeper’s Daughter explored controversial and ethical decisions and their impact on a family in an absolutely enthralling way. A father decides to conceal the birth of his child with Down’s Syndrome and is thereafter haunted by his actions and the related actions of others.The Lake of Dreams (released on January 4th, 2011) also examines family and secrets and is apparently just as successful in creating memorable characters and evocative imagery. A young woman returns home, obsessed by her father’s earlier death and finds herself engaged in conflict and intrigue with her remaining family. Apparently there are secret letters and artefacts revealing a mysterious family past. Do tell.

      

I haven’t encountered a reader yet who wasn’t captivated by Loving Frank by Nancy Horan. In Loving Frank we followed a fictional account of the relationship between Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick Cheney. A fascinating story made all the more interesting by the times in which it took place. In the new The Paris Wife by Paula McLain (to be released February 22,2011) we are drawn into the relationship between real life characters Ernest Hemingway and his first wife Hadley Richardson. The story is written from the fictional perspective of  Hadley during their time together, based mostly in Paris, during the 1920’s.  According to Goodreads: “The city and its inhabitants provide a vivid backdrop to this engrossing and wrenching story of love and betrayal that is made all the more poignant knowing that, in the end, Hemingway would write of his first wife, “I wish I had died before I loved anyone but her.” Insert deep sigh here.

         

Another novel will also draw us back in history in an exciting way. Clara and Mr. Tiffany (to be released on January 11, 2011) is written by Susan Vreeland, known for Girl in Hyacinth Blue and Luncheon of the Boating Party, both successful fictional stories based in the real world of art of yore. “Clara” in the new title refers to one Clara Driscoll, an artist and designer for the famous Tiffany Studios in the late 19th century who until recently was unrecognized publicly for among other things, her creation of the Tiffany lamp and its iconic designs. Knowledge of her influence surfaced only with the discovery of three collections of revealing letters in 2005. Susan Vreeland was inspired and recounts her first introduction to Clara: “Here was the lively, sometimes rhapsodic voice of a woman who bicycled all around Manhattan and beyond, wore a riding skirt daringly shorter than street length, adored opera, followed the politics of the city, and threw herself into the crush of Manhattan life–the poverty of crowded immigrants in the Lower East Side as well as the Gilded Age uptown.” With a character like that to follow this is bound to be fun! Vreeland has proven herself with her previous books to be a solid researcher and a gifted fiction writer so be prepared to learn a great deal and enjoy the process immensely.

Don’t mind me while I mull over my preference for reading paperbacks – these are all hardcovers and I’m not sure I can wait!

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