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! 

April 2016: Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote

Nah, I didn't read any Chaucer this month. I'm overdue for a reread, actually. Maybe I'll get to that in May... or June, the way this month is already flying by. I just couldn't seem to get arsed to write promptly about any of the books I read in April. But here we go.

First up, The Bees by Laline Paull. This was the rare work of fiction that The Dave read first and recommended. His track record is very good at predicting the intersecting portion of the Venn diagram of what he enjoys compared to what I'll enjoy. I would likely never have read The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffinegger or Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke  except for his reco. So, he's a good picker. (Hey, wait, all three of those books were debut novels by women. I love a good coincidence!) 

Like those books, The Bees creates a fully realized, highly believable world with interesting characters, rituals and distinct cultural history without the crutch of an ungrammatical or weirdly punctuated language or exhausting explication. It's about, well, bees. A specific bee, actually, who's born into a specific role within the hive but with natural abilities that allow her and compel her to become more. It's a fascinating tale that explores how one's "destiny" as defined by society does not have to be one's fate. Beautifully written, this one had me turning pages and leaving the light on far too late. 

Hell's Cartel: IG Farben and the Making of Hitler's War Machine by Diarmuid Jeffreys came next. Wow. I just had no idea, none, about how willingly and enthusiastically massive German businesses supported and enabled the Third Reich. I'm embarrassed to admit that. But learning late is better than learning never.

It was also a recommendation, this time by a colleague, who brought it up as a digression in a discussion around Trump and the strange, scary way utterly unvarnished racism has somehow become permissable in American political discourse. 

I picked it up back before Christmas and it took me a few months to find the gumption to get into it. (I'm tempted to make a Leni Riefenstahl Triumph of the Will reference, but maybe I should leave that unsaid. Oops, too late.) Anyway, once I did get immersed, it was actually a riveting read about both the emergence and considerable genius of the German chemical industry and about how there is no inherent moral core to business doing business.  Recommended reading, for sure.

I know I read The Rebel Wife by Taylor Polites next, but not much of it stayed with me. About a young widow whose husband dies from sort of contagious fever-y, bloody illness, it takes place in Post-Civil War Alabama. The widow never much captured my attention or my sympathy. I'm not sure the author was all that emotionally invested in her either. I find myself remembering more about some of the side characters: the dead husband, a slaver turned abolitionist; the "mammy", a woman slave whose own babies had died before she became a wet nurse many years before; the drunkard former Confederate soldier turned Klansman; a husband and wife who are also former slaves who set out to establish a new life far away. Lots of possibilities for a riveting story without focus on the passive, insipid, not-very-rebellious Rebel Wife.   

I'm pretty sure Saving Sophie by Ronald H. Balson was written in hopes of a movie deal. A conventional thriller, it involves a widower-lawyer whose daughter is kidnapped by some pretty stereotypical baddies, in this case orchestrated by the girl's Palestinian grandfather. If the book was written today, the bad guys would be Syrian, in the 80s, Russian, in the 40s, Nazis... You have read this book even if you haven't read this book. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it. 

And speaking of years past, Spadework by Timothy Findley reminded how long ago the 90s really were. The Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal nonsense is played out in the background of this character drama. People really did paint her as the villain of that piece. It now seems like such a (thankfully) dated perspective, and it kept pulling me out of the main story.   

The main story, though, I enjoyed a lot. It is set in Stratford, Ontario and features The Stratford Festival as a backdrop with little cameos of a few theatrical titans (William Hutt, for example, rest in peace) and, of course, the famous swans. The story revolves around relationships, fidelity and ambition. So you see how the Clinton bits fit. 

I found this novel to be less challenging and more easily torn through than what I usually expect from Timothy Findley. I mean, Not Wanted on the Voyage absolutely enraged me as I read it though I could not put it down. Headhunter baffled me on first read and enchanted me on second. Spadework is much more meh than either of those. Why yes, that is a technical term. But still, better than a lot of what I read (she says honestly) so no complaints. 

So, having ploughed through descriptions of my April books, I'm not sure why I was so daunted to begin. I'll try to get May done on schedule. If I'm not too busy with The General Prologue.