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. 

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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!