November 2016: No booze, limited carbs, no cozies (WHAT AM I DOING HELP ME)

Animal Farm by George Orwell. This novel was much tougher to read now as an adult than I remember it being as a teen. Not sure if the difference is one entirely of my perspective or if society is regressing such that this satire of the Russian revolution feels increasingly apt once again. Like 1984, which I read again in August, this novel hits close to home – especially with all the coverage of the tumultuous American election. Feels like the mass of people (oh, jeepers, I want to say "sheeple" - this. must. stop.), regardless of political stripe, non-critically eat up what they are fed. 

broken promise cover.jpeg

Broken Promise by Linwood Barclay. This novel opens with the discovery of 23 dead squirrels. That mystery is not solved - or even much explored - as it is very quickly overtaken by the murder/kidnapping that becomes the main thrust of the plot. Barclay crafts a great read, with intersecting plot lines and well-drawn characters, where it's hard to tell who are the good guys and who the bad because, as in real life, most people are a mix of both elements. I particularly appreciated the depth and sensitivity with which Barclay handles the relationship between the adult son and his aging parents.

The main plot gets a satisfying resolution, yet the many other plot lines do not. I was rather admiring at the same time as baffled, until I realized this book is part 1 of a trilogy. That makes more sense. I found it pretty surprising that a modern thriller writer would leave pieces of the story hanging. Usually everything gets tied up in a neat little bow. So there will be two more novels in which to do that, and I suspect I'll read them.

Everyone We've Been by Sarah Everett. A psychological suspense novel. A broken-hearted love story. With ghosts (sort of). Just because its protagonist is a teen, does that make it a YA novel? I don't know the answer to that, but I know that I thoroughly enjoyed this read. It's well-written, offers a gripping story with engaging characters, and kept me raptly turning pages to see how it would all turn out. I had an appointment that I arrived at early, and I was half-disappointed when I was called in early because I had brought it with me to read just in case. (I might have been fully disappointed except the waiting room was pungent with someone's tagalong cigarette smoke and it was making my eyes water - not what you want before getting a new photo ID.) 

Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling. I starting reading this collection of personal essays as the returns started coming in for the US election. It was precisely the antidote I needed. Mindy Kaling writes as if she is bent on creating a charming, confident-but-not-too-confident, smart, ambitious persona, and she's does it successfully. Why it really works for me though is that she has an executive function of her consciousness overseeing it all, so that when she oversteps, she calls bullshit on herself.  And she's really funny. I read lines and paragraphs  to Dave because he'd ask what it was that made me laugh out loud. A nice light snack, yet very satisfying. 

Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid is meant to be a fresh take on the Jane Austen universe, but it's beyond stale. The story never comes to life, telling rather than showing at every step of the way. Late in the book, when the heroine is described as "insatiably curious" – or some equivalently cliched descriptor; I can't be arsed to go double-check the wording – I found myself actually rolling my eyes. Up to then, her actions have shown her to be strangely incurious and unimaginative. Austen would never create such a dullard.

After a few chapters, I wondered if McDermid was setting up a parody. Or that at some point, the story would zoom out and expose the narrator as a frustrated author trying to write an Austen story at the behest of their editor to tap into a trend and make big bucks. Never happened. The novel turned out to be just what it appeared on the surface: a painfully bland story with a threadbare premise. I wasted my time so you don't have to. 

Redshirts by John Scalzi. Now this is a parody, sort of. And a play-within-a-play, sort of. It's a hoot is what it is, and it refreshed my perspective nicely after that last bit of nonsense. Earlier this year, I read Lock In by Scalzi and enjoyed it thoroughly. This is a very different type of story, but also excellent. You might find a familiarity with the Star Trek world or other TV science fiction/space travel shows to be beneficial, but I think it stands on its own. Funny, silly, smart. Very much in contrast to McDermid's Northanger Abbey in that I felt like the author very much respects his readers and the world he's sending up.  

Astray by Emma Donoghue. I had to work up the gumption to read this book because her Room was so devastating. I mean brilliant, obviously, but tough-going. As it turns out, Astray is a very different experience. It's a collection of short stories that share a common theme: each protagonist leaves home and the familiar, either literally or figuratively – in one story, through age-related dementia. At the end of each story, Donoghue shares the historical snippet that inspired the story. She's certainly not one for the trite happily-ever-after, and it makes for a wonderful collection of very human stories. 

Bee Time: Lessons from the Hive by Mark L. Winston. One of the things I love - and crave - about knitting is the meditative reverie state I can achieve with the right combination of pattern and yarn. Winston describes a similar experience for experienced keepers amongst the hives. He calls it "bee time." This book offers wide-ranging reflections about his long academic and personal experience with bees as well as consideration of the alarming environmental and economic impacts of colony collapse disorder. There is much we can learn from bees' social structure, division of labour, work–rest balance (turns out that "busy as a bee" is not all that busy actually), communication patterns, the list goes on. Winston covers it all. What's more, his prose is gorgeous. I found myself soothed by his cadence, a little slice of bee time between the covers.  

Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative Life by Tom Robbins. Reading this collection of remembrances – he shies away from calling it a memoir – I absolutely had the sense of the author's presence, like he was actually there talking to me. It felt like a (I'm about to use a five dollar word here) disintermediated experience. Not to say the storytelling isn't well-crafted because it is, it simply has the sense of stories crafted and recrafted in the telling, rather than on the page. Now in his 80s, Robbins has really lived. From a poor boyhood in the Jim Crow south to a military deployment in Korea to a bohemian lifestyle to authordom, he tells it like he sees it with his characteristic humour and robust vocabulary. And, perhaps as a testament to his emotional honesty, he seldom comes out looking particularly good. 

So it's the end of November, and I pretty much achieved what I set out to. Nary a drop of alcohol touched my lips, restoring my liver to vigorous readiness. Not a single cozy page did I read either, and I find myself much less grumpy book-wise. Except for that dumb Northanger Abbey. I'm still offended on my dear Miss Austen's behalf. Oh, and I watched Murder She Wrote on TV with my mom last night, which kind of felt like cheating but it totally wasn't. And on the avoid simple carbs thing, well, let's just say I made a really good showing on that score the first half of the month. Progress, not perfection! 

September 2016: One stand out, a buncha enjoyables, and one sad trombone

The stand out

Dietland by Sarai Walker. So good. You should probably read it rather than my description. But I'll take a stab at it. Let's just say societal pressure around dieting and body image leads to terrorism in this book. Like, realistically. 

I mean, as a concept it's out there, but not so far as you might prefer to think. 

The enjoyables

Arsenic and Old Books by Miranda James. "A cat in the stacks mystery." The rare male protagonist in the cozy genre. 

Knot Guilty by Betty Hechtman. "A crochet mystery." Makes much of the rivalry between knitters and crocheters. Is that a thing?

Death by Devil's Breath by Kylie Logan. "A chili cook-off mystery."

License to Dill by Mary Ellen Hughes. "A pickled & preserved mystery." This one is where a character mentions making jam from apples and onions. So I did. Liked the book, love the jam. Thumbs up!

A Beeline to Murder by Meera Lester. "A Henny Penny Farmette mystery."

Midnight Crossroad by Charlaine Harris. Cover says "first in a new series." I kind of need to read more than one before I endorse the series, but this first one is rather promising. A potentially interesting cast of characters that I'd like to see develop.

Rogue Lawyer by John Grisham. 

Firm Ambitions by Michael A Kahn.

The sad trombone

Funny Girl by Nick Hornby. Started off strong, but ultimately very disappointing. It was like Hornby lost interest in the titular character after a handful of chapters. Bummer, cause she was much more gripping than the male characters that dominated the rest of the book. Wah waaaah. 

May 2016: Variety pack

So, it's June 23. And here's the list for May. It's been a bit crazypants around here. I read every night before I go to sleep, so reading never entirely goes by the wayside. Unlike, say, binge-watching things on Netflix or vacuuming. Gotta have priorities. 

I'm going to do a list. Let's see which books move me to comment on.

1. Brush Back by Sara Paretsky. V.I. Warshawsky rides again. Just realizing that I never did figure out what the title references. 

2. Moss Hysteria by Kate Collins. A typical cozy. 

3. Eighth Grave from the Dark by Darynda Jones. A series (did the numeric title tip you off?) about the grim reaper married to the son of the devil. In this one, they had a baby. I think the charm of this series may be wearing off for me. 

4. Cold Girl by R.M. Greenaway. A murder mystery set in the modern context of the Canadian northwest. There was a secondary, or actually probably more like tertiary, character that I found particularly intriguing. An old, blind First Nations man who is working to preserve his language and teach it to the young people. I want to know his story.

5.  So Much for That by Lionel Shriver. My fingers are hesitating over the keyboard, trying to figure out which thought to pluck out of my brain and lay down for this book. There were some really frustrating moments in this story – as in life – but it all came together. Perhaps a little too perfectly at the end, but I'll take it.  

6. Queen of Babble Gets Hitched by Meg Cabot. The chicklitiest of chick lit. Eye roll-y and yet I'm complicit. Here it is on my list. 

7. Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver. A lovely counterpoint to the previous entry. The story of a woman to whom life has handed nothing but low expectations and how she gradually begins to break out of the metaphorical chrysalis in which she has been bound.  

8. The First Crusade, A New History: The Roots of Conflict Between Christianity and Islam by Thomas Asbridge. Moral of this non-fiction account? Religion has been the excuse for intolerance, terrorism, and assholitude since forever. 

9. Where Did You Sleep Last Night by Lynn Crosbie. Not for me, Jenn. I couldn't finish it. Not interested in self-destructive faux-nostalgia for the grunge era. 

10. The Children's Crusade by Ann Packer. Lots of unsympathetic characters, but an engrossing read. And no religious element, despite what the title might imply. 

Plus, the fam gave me a new Kobo for Mother's Day. Yay!! 

And I'm thoroughly HOOKED on a podcast series called Rex Factor. (Once you listen to it, you'll start saying that title in a very particular, majestic way.) The audio isn't great in the first few episodes, but hang in there 'cause it gets better. A couple of blokes – I feel like they'd describe themselves as blokes - discuss and score each of the kings and queens of England, starting way back with the Saxons. (They have a second series on the monarchs of Scotland, but I'm not there yet.) So good. Check it out!