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Summer Reading Reviews 2018

 

As another summer is swiftly coming to a close, I have been able to discover many new reads.  Above is a brief snapshot of a few selections that I have read this summer including a book completely found by accident.  Below are the reviews that I wrote for each book for my GoodReads account.  I tried to simplify by linking the URL but unsuccessfully so instead I have copied and pasted each of my reviews.

The Women of Brewster Place – Gloria Naylor

If you have ever read my other blog posts, you know I am a passionate reader of short stories.  This collection of seven stories was an accidental find in a school library this summer as I was proctoring exams at the end of the day.  I love it when a great book finds you!  These seven stories were both endearing and raw with some beautifully illustrated characters with varied life-experiences.  I loved how Naylor wove each woman into each of the other stories to bring us a picture of what and who Brewster Place was.

My favourite character in the seven stories was Mattie Michael.  Maybe because her story had the most information to her life as a young woman into her golden years.  I liked Mattie because she had grit, integrity and love in her even though the hand she was dealt in life was bitterly unfair.  Another character I quite liked was Kiswana Browne.  She was a character who really wanted to make a change for herself.  I felt she was an optimist in the face of great struggle and adversity.  The dynamic she has with her mother could be perceived as toxic but Naylor moves away from that when it is only goodness and love that Mrs. Browne wants for her daughter.  As the story evolves so does Kiswana as she tries to unite the complex and fight for the rights of the tenants.

The stories and woven so seamless into each other and even though there is a particularly violent scene in the book regarding one of ‘The Two”, it is a most necessary commentary on the time period and the perceived role of women within that society.  After I read that particular part of the book I felt a little sick because of the bare-stripped vulnerability of the character who is violently assaulted and left for dead.  She comes alive in a rage only to end another life.  Those scenes in books are never easy to read.  My impression was Naylor was trying to say many things through the character Lorraine and that horrific scene: that people can loose their humanity in an instant, that violence is still used to obtain power, that women are forever objectified in not just novels but other mediums, that people hate what they do not want to understand.

This was Naylor’s first novel but she writes so vividly with characters of various backgrounds and life experiences that it creates a wildly enchanting novel of women’s voices.

Pat of Silver Bush – L.M. Montgomery

I just adore L.M. Montgomery so it was great to read about Patricia Gardiner. A wonderful dreamy character who is fiercely loyal to her beloved Silver Bush and her family. A wonderful coming of age story about life on P.E. Island. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel to enjoy more adventures of Pat, Judy, Jingle, McGinty the dog and Gentleman Tom the wise cat. It was so lovely to read from my favourite childhood author again.

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Mistress Pat – L.M. Montgomery

L.M. Montgomery’s follow-up to her charming tale of Pat of Silver Bush is a fairly good sequel. Many of the characters come back into the story including one of my favourites, Judy Plum and all her wild tales along with cats Bold-and-Bad and Gentleman Tom. Montgomery also includes a new character in Tillytuck who comes to help Long Alec as a farmhand but becomes one of the family with his pet, Just Dog. He is a rival storyteller to Judy’s tales and adds some warm and depth to the story as a whole.
The story continues to focus on Pat as she grows older and her constant stream of “beaus” who she steadily rejects one after another. The character of Rae grows up quite a bit in this story and almost becomes the voice of reason where Pat is concerned. Montgomery is still a fantastic storyteller with vivid and descriptive language through the story although I liked the magic of the first book the best. Readers of the first book will like this sequel because it ties up many loose ends and character storylines which will leave the reader possibly unsatisfied or joyous depending on which “beau” you hoped Pat would end up with if anyone.

Elliot – Julie Pearson

Thank you to my local bookseller @epicbookshamilton for ordering Elliot for me. It is really tough to find books about foster care which is a topic close to my heart.  Having read many non-fiction books about adoption and foster care, I was looking for something better to share with my foster son.  I found this book accidentally during a Google search and was able to order it through my local bookseller.  I was not disappointed.

It is a great story and approach to what happens to a child who is placed into care.  The system is not always easy to navigate but here the author shows us what it is like to be in care from the point of view of Elliot a little rabbit whose parents have been struggling to take care of him.  He meets different families as he moves from one family to another and sometimes back to his birth-parents.  He navigates the system with his worker Thomas.  Further, the book has some beautiful illustrations by Manon Gauthier who uses collage illustrations in the story.

At the end of the story Elliot is finally placed with his forever, forever home.  This story has really resonated with my family because this is our personal situation.  We are hopeful to be our foster son’s forever, forever family but the system can be very unpredictable.  This is a necessary book. Children in care get forgotten and their experiences are so vastly different from other children.  This book gives them some hope, some understanding and something to look forward to as they try to work out all their feelings.  I highly recommend this book and it should be in all social workers’ tool boxes.

Frog Music – Emma Donoghue

Having attending a writers festival back in June (Alice Munro Festival of the Short Story), I was able to purchase this novel by acclaimed author Emma Donoghue. Frog Music was an unexpected gem. I have always had a soft-spot for historical fiction and this story intrigued me from the start. Although the novel is classified as a crime novel, it has so much more in it. The characters are both likeable and loathsome. When I first met Blanche, I was unsure whether to cheer for her or not. However, Donoghue’s protagonist grows on the reader as she works to solve the mystery of her friend’s Jenny Bonnet’s murder.

This is a story that is based on real people and events in 1876 San Francisco. The gunslinging is real, the baby farms are real as are many of the characters and events in the story. I loved that Donoghue wrote both women in such different ways. Jenny is a freewheeling, pants wearing, bicycling riding, frog catcher who defies convention at every possible turn. When the reader first meets Blanche she fits a stereotypical role of fragile heroine but that image is soon shattered as she finally finds her voice; her voice to avenge her friend, find her child and leave a sordid life behind her.

The novel also has an afterword which many readers are tempted to skip but this one is worth reading as Donoghue fills in many of the pieces as to why she wrote the book and various links of both history and music that accompany the story. She also includes a detailed French glossary to help the reader decipher the French through the story.

It was a most fascinating read this summer.

Braving the Wilderness – The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone – Brene Brown

Having read other books by Brene Brown, I was looking forward to this one, but it was just okay. She has some really great starting points but I thought there would be more development in each chapter. She tackles the reality of what is happening in much of the world today specifically the U.S. as she is an American writer, but I think she missing some points.

This book came to me at the right time considering all her chapter titles; specifically I am thinking about Chapter Five: Speak Truth to Bullshit. Be Civil. In this chapter she points out the old argument of you’re either with us or against us. This is highly topical in today’s world. However she also asks the reader to challenge lies and most pass either/or situations into more critical thinking.

This book does speak to the collapse of true communication and what it means to belong in a society and how that challenges people to be more vulnerable and uncomfortable, yet finding that true sense of self. Brown has many good starting points in the book but something is missing.

I did appreciate her inclusion of many researchers and well respected individuals in various fields as she included both interviews, quotes and shared theories from these people. I admire her wanting to take on such a difficult topic that does need to be addressed in our ever-changing society but something was missing for me in the end.

The Blue Castle – L.M. Montgomery

Clearly I had a fascination with one of my favourite childhood authors L.M. Montgomery this summer.  It was very interesting to go back and read from this author from the perspective as a adult.  Perhaps next summer I will re-read all the Anne books.

This novel started in a horribly depressing way when the reader meets the protagonist Valancy who has really never taken any chances at all including falling in love.  Her mother is horrid along with the cousin that lives with her.  Long before society identified verbal abuse, it is clear that this is that fate of Valancy while she continues to live with her mother.  Finally chance intervenes when she is diagnosed with a fatal heart condition.  She tells no one of this as she extended clan is just a terrible as her mother.  They are truly unlikable characters who treat Valancy as less-than human on some occasions.

As she throws caution to the wind, she becomes involved with Barney who is deemed as dangerous by the rest of the town. In Montgomery’s typical fashion she creates some greatly visual characters during Valancy’s transformation. The story is both tragic and triumphant as Valancy finally finds herself after a lifetime of searching. A great book for those who love romantic writers like Montgomery.

books · Canadian books · Canadians · dogs · library · reading · summer · witches

Summer Reads

As the summer comes to a close with the temperatures getting cooler each night and the sun setting a little earlier each evening, I think back on all the books I have read over this nine-week period.

Thirteen books have passed through my hands during the hot months of July and August and some were page-turners while others left me wanting for more.

I found these books in libraries, on my own book shelf and on the shelves of book stores, both big box and local and in an airport.  With each read I was transported to a different time and place depending on the genre of the book and the focus of the author.

The summer started with the novel by Canadian author Katherena Vermette who first came to my attention with a fantastic collection of very Canadian short stories.  I did not want to pass up her debut novel The Break and I was not disappointed.  Although I have already blogged briefly about this novel, I wanted to mention it again as I liked the characters and the stories.  A brief synopsis was shared with a friend of mine who asked what I thought of it:

“I really liked it. I had a hard time putting it down. I did have a hard time connecting to Stella and her inability to react. It was not the easiest subject to write about but the author did a good job in creating the different narrative voices to reveal each part of the story.”

As a dog lover I picked up two different novels completely by chance at my local public library in Hamilton at different points during the summer.  The first called Ordinary Dogs, Extraordinary Friendships: Stories of Loyalty, Courage and, Compassion is a non-fiction book that chronicles the amazing life and adventures of Pam Flowers and her trips into the Arctic with her team of sled dogs.  Her tales are harrowing at times and this would be a great read for young adolescents who happen to love dogs.  After reading this book, I had a greater respect for working dogs and the people who love them.

More recently I finished the short book Good Dog, Stay by renowned American author Anna Quindlen.  It is another account of dogs and their people; those who love them and bond with them.  I liked this book and Quindlen’s devotion to the different dogs that came into her life and bonded with her children with a focus on her Labrador retriever, Beau.  It is a sweet story for anyone who has had a dog and loved it and the heart-wrenching decision to put your dog down when it needs to end its’ suffering.  Get the tissues out for this one.

As the summer passed I made more time to read including a collection of short stories called Boundary Country by Tom Wayman.  Some of the stories I really liked as they often reflected my countries vast and varied landscape and climate.  This was my first introduction to Wayman who is otherwise known in the literary world as a poet.  He seems to have a keen grasp of the human condition as he writes each story sometimes using historical events to frame the narrative.

Into my hands came more Canadian authors including Margaret Laurence as I re-visited her writing style through The Fire-Dwellers and laughed out loud as I read through the highly recommended Home From the Vinyl Café: A Year of Stories by Stuart McLean.  Although both authors are deceased, each book reminded me of the greatness of some of my country’s authors and how incredibly Canadian a book can be.  The narrative, the setting and even the dialogue is uniquely my country’s own as I read through each book.

I also found myself reading a few graphic novels as the summer went on.  One I was extremely excited to find, as it had been on my “to-read” list on GoodReads for some time.  Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? was one of the best reads this summer.  The subject matter is sad and depressing but how Chast presents the true story of her parents aging and eventual deaths is so authentic.  The cartoons are fantastic as she chronicles her parents and their eccentricities.  As a person who has lived through the experience of watching a parent die as a result of a chronic illness some of what Chast says is relatable.  Although my father died at the early age of 64 and Chast’s parents live into their nineties, the relatability is similar.  I really recommend this book to anyone who is at this stage in their life where the roles are reversed and one is caring for an aging and/or dying parent.  An uncomfortable topic to be sure, but Chast’s wit and genuine reflection on this terrible time in an adult child’s life is written with true compassion and care.

The lazy month of August came and I flew through Miller’s Valley when I ran out of something to read while travelling back from Las Vegas.  This was my first Anna Quindlen novel.  I had always wanted to read something by this much celebrated American author but opportunity to do so never materialized.  The novel started slow but gained some momentum as the family saga played out focusing on protagonist Mimi Miller.  It is a cautionary tale related to water sustainability while Quindlen creates both likeable and unlikeable characters for the reader to absorb.  I was pleased with this book and will read more of Quindlen’s work.

While in beautiful Las Vegas I was continuing to read Into the Water which I had started before we left for our trip. The much-anticipated follow-up novel from best-selling author Paula Hawkins had me intrigued.  I had heard a podcast (Q) on CBC radio where Hawkins was interviewed and discussed her writing and the incredible success she received following her excellent debut novel Girl on the Train (which I loved!).  I did like the novel as it read much like a mystery, but it is so hard for any author to follow the kind of success from a stellar debut like Girl on the Train.

The last two books I wanted to blog about in this post are very different from each other.  The Witches of New York is by Nova Scotia author Ami McKay who I know from her terrific first novel The Birth House.  McKay is an author I really like.  She incorporates quite a bit of historical information into each story and this novel is no exception referencing the horrific Salem witch trials (Into the Water referenced the trials too).  All three protagonists are very different but oh so likeable!  The book is filled with beautiful illustrations and poetic verses and witches’ spells that all add to the story.  I was sorry when it was over.  McKay’s imagination and the ability to weave together an engaging tale is a true gift.IMG_3110

The last book for this blog post is another book that I had wanted to read but kept missing.  A Number of Things: Stories of Canada Told Through Fifty Objects should be mandatory reading in all Canadian schools.  Jane Urquhart is a Canadian author who weaves together a historical and engaging account of fifty objects that connect to Canada all neatly illustrated by Canadian Scott McKowen.  Not every Canadian would have chosen the same fifty objects that Urquhart did but they are good choices that tell a story of our nation coming together to become the country that it is today, and will continue to be as the world changes.  I liked this book because Urquhart does pick some strange things like a tractor and a shoe, but the more the reader reads, the clearer the reasoning is for her choices. I learned new tidbits and facts about my country.IMG_3219

As the summer comes to a close and I get ready to head back into the classroom, I will have new books to share with my students and family.  Now to get to that list for Autumn…