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.

Titanic-ish Fiction

April 10, 2012

100 years has passed since the dramatic demise of the Titanic and many fascinating features are appearing in the news. There are an extraordinary number of non-fiction narratives on the shelves about the ship, the tragedy, the victims, and survivors and even a cookbook re-creating the meals served on board. Two new releases in the Fiction department look very appealing to me. Whether Titanic-inspired or not (they are) these strike me as simply great stories.
   
Kate Alcott (a pseudonym) is a journalist who had always been intrigued by the Titanic disaster and more specifically, by the lives of its survivors. With her professional eye for detail and story, she found a particularly colourful character during her research around whom she deftly projected an imagined tale. The Dressmaker is the result. Much of the action in this novel stems from the investigative hearings which took place following the sinking. Romance and moral angst appear, of course, to keep us riveted!
 
The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan also fictionally echoes the Titanic but more vaguely; the featured ill-fated vessel is named the Empress Alexandra. But, as with The Dressmaker, this novel’s story flourishes in the ethical dilemmas and emotions rising from post-sinking investigations and trial. Author Charlotte Rogan, who practised writing as a surreptitious diversion while raising triplets (!), was inspired by reading old legal texts and by time spent sailing as a youngster when she learned to appreciate on-board hierarchy and decision-making protocols. Both experiences influence the thrilling study of truth and integrity as survivors recount and defend behaviours that took place within The Lifeboat. The strategizing and posturing sounds a bit like a heated episode of TVs “Survivor”! I am certain this remarkably well-reviewed book will be a bestseller.
And just because I know I piqued your interest above … click to be taken to amazon’s peek inside.  It’s a gorgeous book!

Lisa See

July 1, 2011

    

     

There are a few writers on whom one can depend to consistently provide a solid, entertaining and memorable read; Lisa See is one.  Her four most recent novels are wonderful journeys into the lives of strong and inspiring Chinese women and their experiences at different points in China’s (and the US’s ) history. Each story is engaging and poignant and, in the style of a historical novel (though each feels very contemporary), draws us into learning about an era we may never have had the chance to understand before. Snow Flower and The Secret Fan and Peony in Love stand alone while the very recent release, Dreams of Joy, is a sequel to Shanghai Girls. The author’s website gives wonderful background and descriptions for each novel – click on the book covers to be taken there.

The writing reflects thorough research and impeccable detail.  Lisa See, though she could be mistaken for an Irish lass, is in fact half Chinese. Her interest in the history of Chinese women is intensely personal and the depth of her care is evident in the writing. If you haven’t read her books before, then do make room on your bedside table for one or more of these. If you are seeking to read some of her other writing then explore her three mystery-thrillers (Flower Net, Dragon Bones, Interior) or the memoir based on her Grandfather’s journey from China to Los Angeles’ Chinatown (On Gold Mountain). Many of her books are award winners.

You’d think she’s been busy enough writing and facilitating sessions at the Smithsonian and beyond to share her considerable knowledge of the Chinese Immigrant experience but Lisa See has also seen her book Snow Flower and the Secret Fan become a movie set for release in early July.

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