Noteworthy Reads

I have been reading as much as my spare time will allow and there are a couple of books I wanted to highlight for anyone looking for some really great fiction this summer. Here are a couple of books that I loved so much I stayed up way past my bedtime in order to reach the next chapter.

The Power by Naomi Alderman.

ThePowerNaomiAlderman

This novel is the most captivating story I have read in a long time. A dystopian world is created by Alderman, one where women possess an incredible power that enables them to physically dominate over men. Alderman challenges everything that we consider “normal” in society by creating a world that looks exactly, and yet nothing at all, like our world. I fell in love with the fast-paced storytelling and the timely social commentary that was created in the midst of a really great plot.

Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O’Neill.

I discovered this author last year after reading her novel, The Lonely Hearts Hotel, and what a gift she is. There are few things I love more than a story about a young, female protagonist who is up against seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Baby is a twelve year old girl living with her Dad, Jules, as they move from one rundown hotel room to the next in Montreal. Jules is incapable of giving Baby anything other than a traumatic and chaotic upbringing and I found myself wishing that I could scoop her up in my arms during many horrifying moments in her young life. I fell in love with Baby instantly, as the precocious, resourceful, and charming little girl she is, and I even harboured a soft spot for her father, which I think was planted in myself by Baby herself. Heather O’Neill is an impeccable artist who manages to craft downtrodden characters filled with many faults and imperfections that you fall madly in love with.

Summer is the best time of year to read (other than fall, winter, and spring). What are some of your must-reads this season?

X Jo

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The Honey Farm: A Review

Listen. It starts with the bees. (Harriet Lye, The Honey Farm)

The way in which I mark the passing of time has changed dramatically since my son was born. The last time I wrote anything my son was only just learning to move around on his own. Now my days are filled to the brim with wet, open-mouthed kisses, and watching with wonder how a tiny little person can harbor such big personality.

As I enter this new season, both in motherhood and with the return of greenery in my garden, I am feeling a refreshed motivation for the things that delight and inspire me. I have been anticipating the release of The Honey Farm by Harriet Lye for many months and I was thrilled when it finally arrived.

I count myself among the fortunate who has already read this seemingly innocuous (and yet, not at all) story about an artist’s retreat that takes place on a Honey Farm in Ontario.

Silvia, a young university graduate, is trying to escape yet another summer spent working at a Bible Camp in Nova Scotia. Ibrahim, a painter who is a “true artist” from Toronto, meets Silvia amid a group of other artists at “The Honey Farm”. What follows is not as simple as work for room and board, and yet, it is exactly that. The farm and the honeybees are being cared for by the artists, who came to the Honey Farm in search of inspiration. The artists arrived during an intense drought that has everyone on edge and sets the tone for the remainder of their stay. You are taken through a story that begins with murmurs of malevolence, created surreptitiously by Lye, and erupts into a drone that can no longer be ignored.

In the afternoons, as Silvia lies in bed in a paralysis of what to become, time extending before her like an eternal diving board, she hears the cries of children playing during recess in the schoolyard on her bock; they seem to have no problem at all with the fluidity of being and becoming.  (Harriet Lye, The Honey Farm)

Lye explores what it is you are afraid of and reminds you of moments in your own life when you have felt something was just a “little off”. She taps into our raw human instinct and the ways in which we have to decide to fight, flight, or freeze. You are left wondering if the scariest monsters are those you can see clearly, or those who remain in the periphery of your vision, always escaping clarity. Lye manages to manipulate the reader’s imagination into seeing what it is that they are most afraid of. Is it loss of control? Losing your mind? Or is it the most sinister of enemies that sets your adrenaline pumping? Whichever it is, you will surely have to confront it within the pages of this story.

She will die, Abouya responds with a sigh. Everything dies. Ibrahim can see his father’s sorrowful, pragmatic, heart-full face crumpling, mouth open as he considers his words. And we have to learn to love the world anyway. Lucky for you if you die first. (Harriet Lye, The Honey Farm) 

The emotional build within this book is unlike anything I’ve come across in my love affair with fiction. You are not consciously aware of the tension that has been created until it becomes unbearable and cracks wide open like the release of pressure preempting a thunderstorm.

The Honey Farm is an entrancingly dark, sinister, and absolutely engaging work of fiction right up until the very end.

X Jo

Tell Me Three Things: A (very brief) Review 

YA fiction is one of my guilty pleasures when it comes to reading. I love a coming of age story that’s filled with all of the emotions that accompany growing up. Although I am now in my thirties, and can identify more strongly with the parents in these stories than the kids, I feel like it keeps me connected to my youth and it reminds me that it wasn’t that long ago I felt these same things. Plus, I just really love a good story. 

Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum was on my TBR shelf even though I can’t quite remember what made me buy this book. Regardless, I took this book on my vacation to the beach and it was exactly what I was looking for.

Jessie, a 16 year old girl who has just suffered the loss of her mother and then her father re-marrying and moving them from Chicago to LA, receives an anonymous email from a fellow student at her new high school. They become fast friends and share witty and honest anecdotes from their days, often starting with “Three Things” about themselves. As Jessie tries to start fresh in her new city and new school, the mystery of who is her anonymous friend begins to unravel and you’re left hoping and wishing with her that it’s someone who will change her life for the better. 

Satisfying and enjoyable, this young adult fiction is the stuff my own teenage self’s dreams are made of. Although I’m far from a teenager now, I feel like this book has the potential to connect to anyone who has lost someone they love and plays on the hope and optimism that seemingly only youth can muster in times of significant disarray. Although predictable at times, the lack of surprises doesn’t take away from the conclusion, or the ability to fall in love with the main character’s resilience. Jessie is who I wish I could have been when I was a teenager. 

This was an incredibly sweet story that I spent my time on the beach with, and it is a young adult fiction that this full-grown adult loved. 

X Jo 

The Couple Next Door: A Review 

A quick note before I begin. This review has a lot of spoilers so if you plan on reading this book, or if you’re part way through, don’t read this post. Also, if you’re thinking of reading it and not sure, but wondering if I recommend it? I do not.

I love a good thriller. Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train, and Before I Go To Sleep are three in recent years that I’ve enjoyed thoroughly. Sadly, I did not love The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena. After the first chapter I was excited because it was fast-paced and the author managed to grab my attention immediately. And then I continued to read and the story got so convoluted and ridiculous that I simply wanted to read to see how it all ended. Unfortunately, the ending was particularly disappointing. Sigh. Like I said before, I love a good thriller and this was, simply put, not a good thriller.

Major spoilers below- just to warn you again!

I tried to boil down the messy plot into a brief summary and this is the best I could manage:

This is the story of two new parents coming home from a party at their next door neighbor’s house (after having left their 6-month-old daughter home alone) to find their daughter kidnapped from her crib. We discover after a few chapters of searching for the baby that the new father conspired to kidnap his infant daughter with the help from a stranger he met in a bar to get money from his rich in-laws to save his failing business. That stranger just happens to be working with his father in-law (the grandfather of said missing baby) to set the husband up for many unclear reasons (hating the son in law possibly being number one?). Then the stranger tried to extort more money from the grandfather who in turn kills said stranger, all while having a torrid love affair with the new fathers next door neighbour, the same one whose house they were at in the very beginning. She was apparently in on the whole thing although that is never really made clear. So after the new mom, who now has her baby back from being kidnapped by her husband and father (and now deceased stranger), her life can return to normal as a mom. Except, she decides to go over to the neighbours house and kills her father’s lover. Throw in a dissociative personality disorder along with some new-mom body shaming and you’ve got yourself The Couple Next Door.

Cheers if you made it through that summary!

I don’t often dislike books, but this one was such a disappointment even though it started with much promise to be an entertaining thriller. The plot of the missing baby had my interest piqued, but beyond those first few pages this book went flat.

Convoluted, messy, and not at all what I was hoping it would be, The Couple Next Door just didn’t do it for me.

X Jo

On South Mountain: A Review

A good friend of mine, who is the senior editor at a local publishing company, told me about this book over a year ago when we were out having coffee. She spent months scouring places to find it since it was no longer in print, and spent nearly three times the cost of a hard-cover in order to get her hands on it. Prompted by its inaccessibility (due to people stealing library copies and refusing to sell their used copies) and important subject-matter, she spent months in talks with the authors and after a lot of hard work the book was recently re-published. One clause of the re-publication is that all of the royalties will be donated to the Nova Scotian charity S.O.A.R. (Survivors of Abuse Recovering). An important organization that you can find here: http://survivorsofabuserecovering.ca/.

After having read the fictional story, Our Daily Bread by Lauren B Davis (see my review here) that was based on the Goler family, I was intrigued and wanted to take the history lesson that On South Mountain by David Cruise and Alison Griffiths undeniably provides. What resulted was an unsettling, uncomfortable, and unimaginably horrific story that needs to be told, and likewise read, by anyone living in this beautiful province.

This book follows the very beginnings of what is known as South Mountain in the prominent Annapolis Valley region. It explores the way in which the land was shaped by separating the Valley from the Mountain area. This geological formation laid the groundwork for the divide between the people of the valley and the people of the mountain that continues today. As we learn the history behind the land formation and the people who originally occupied the area, we are introduced to the traumatic story of the Goler family that was wrought with abuse and incest for generations. The authors explore the public exposure of the family’s dark secrets that arose in 1984, the legal battles that followed, and the way in which these children were failed time and time again. We learn how many of them tried, some with success, to shed their torrid past and lead proud, productive lives all while trying to conceal their true identities.

This book, of the horrors that happened on South Mountain, is what nightmares are made of. An important part of Nova Scotian history that is oft swept under a moralistic rug by many people who not only knew what abuse these children were facing, but would perpetuate or, just as worse, turn a blind eye to their struggles.

It’s the harsh reminder that Nova Scotia is far from innocent in promoting the dangerous thinking of “us” versus “them” and how being an “innocent bystander” can make you just as guilty as the people you know who are causing harm.

X Jo

Levar Burton Reads: A Podcast Review 

Over the last few weeks I have been searching for ways in which I can increase the amount of time I spend reading, but without compromising my need for sleep at night. For anyone with a 7 month old like mine who does not love a solid night’s sleep yet, you understand me all too well! My time during the day is filled with baby cuddles and playtime, and nap times are often when I can fit in some home improvement projects or simply try to stay on top of the ever-growing laundry pile. So being able to read during the day is a luxury I will have to wait for when my little one gets older and reading more at night will come once my baby decides he loves sleep just as much as I do. I thought about diving into the world of audio books, but I decided to give Levar Burton’s podcast a try instead.

 
Although Burton is now facing a lawsuit over calling the podcast “Reading Rainbow for adults”, this child of the 1980’s was excited to relive her childhood as a now thirty-year-old by listening to Levar Burton Reads. Each podcast is dedicated to a short story personally selected by Burton and is filled with well-crafted sound effects and intonations of his soothing voice that creates powerful imagery while listening. Hearing him read each story is like being read a bedtime story by an old family member with whom I had lost touch over the years. I only recently (in the last few years) began to fall in love with the art of short stories, and Burton has resurrected my appreciation for authors who are able to accomplish so much in so few pages.

 
I just finished episode 8 where Levar reads “The Second Bakery Attack” by Haruki Murakami and it only intensified my love for Murakami’s storytelling and how magical his stories are. When read by Burton, the product is perfection.
For anyone with a love of reading, and not always the time to do it, Levar Burton Reads is the perfect way to fit stories into your daily life. As a bonus, if you are like me and a PBS kid from the 1980’s, you’ll be reminded of those rainy afternoons spent watching Reading Rainbow and getting lost in the words of a book.

 

X Jo

Fierce Kingdom: A Review 

I love picking up books that have the literary world buzzing and I began to hear of Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips online. It had been months since I read a book that made me read so intently and one that I just couldn’t wait to get to the end. It is so much fun to encounter page-turners and I managed to read this one in three days, which I like to think is the post-baby equivalent of reading a book in an afternoon before I had a baby. 

Fierce Kingdom is a story about a mother and son playing in a zoo when they end up trapped in a Columbine-esque nightmare that has the mother trying desperately to save her four year old’s life. It is fraught with tense predicaments, morally-confusing situations, and sweet moments shared between mother and son amid the terror around them. The plot of this story takes us over the course of just a few hours, but a lot of ground is covered in such a short period of time.

What I loved more than the plot itself, which I have to admit has a few holes and glosses over some pretty big moments, is the relationship between mother and son. I am not even going to try to convince you that I am not heavily biased by my current situation with my baby boy in tow, but I was moved by the way in which motherhood was portrayed. Phillips writes about being a mother in a way I have never encountered before, at least not since I had my son. 

She tugs at her collar, stretching the cotton, and wipes the snot from her skin. She is still sometimes surprised that she is not repulsed by it. Not when it is his. This is such a different kind of intimacy than with, say, a lover. With a lover you might have a perfect comfort with each other’s body, a sense that his body belongs to you and yours to him, and you might have total unselfconscious freedom to put a hand on his thigh, to put your mouth the way you know he likes best, for him to curl around you in bed, pelvis to pelvis- but the two of you are still, ultimately, two different bodies, and the pleasure comes from the difference. 

With Lincoln, the line between their two selves is blurred. She bathes him and wipes off every bodily fluid, and he sticks his fingers in her mouth or catches his balance with a hand on the top of her head. He catalogues her freckles and moles as carefully as he keeps track of his own scrapes and bruises. He does not quite know that he is a being apart from her. Not yet. For now, her arm is as accessible as his arm- her limbs are equally his limbs. 

They are interchangeable.

 – Gin Phillips, Fierce Kingdom 

 

I loved the way Gin Phillips wrote the mother as an imperfect person trying to make the best decisions for her son. I do wish that the book was a bit longer however, so we could have had more character development since there is still so much we don’t know about her, and it left her feeling slightly more one dimensional than she could have been.

The story itself is one that, unfortunately, seems to be all too common in today’s society. It’s not unreasonable to think a situation where there are gunmen on the loose and nobody is safe, not even young children or families, could be plausible. I think this is what made the story all the more terrifying. The news is inundated with stories just like this one, and it made me wonder if I would make the same hard choices that this mother made in an attempt to save her son at all costs. 

Although I think there were some shortcomings of this fiction (lacking some character development, a premature ending, and missed opportunities to dig deeper into the ethical questions raised) I did find myself enjoying this book right up until the end. It’s impossible for me to give a bad review of a book that had me turning the pages furiously and one that made me tear up in its discussion about motherhood. 

X Jo 

milk and honey: A (very brief) Review 

I took my time making my way to this book of poetry, and I like to think I found it when I was ready to give it the attention it deserves. Vivid, moving, strong, and tender- Rupi Kaur delivers some of my favourite pieces of modern poetry I have read to date. 

I don’t feel that I am deserving to be writing a review of something that is so intimate and personal and I am not in a position to critique emotions, which is what I feel these poems are. Rupi Kaur writes with such vulnerability and makes you feel as though you have stumbled across a private journal. Poetry isn’t something I often gravitate towards, but this was exactly what I think poetry should be: feelings put into words that allow the reader to reflect the writer’s emotions onto themselves. 

One of the most moving things I have read in a very long time and a book that will sit on my nightstand so I can re-explore my favourite poems whenever I like.

X Jo 

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?: A Review 

It feels good to be back in the groove of spending time with my books. The little down time I have these days is often dedicated to things like- sleep! and showering!- but I have managed to get in at least a few minutes of reading every day, which makes me very happy. 

For my birthday I was given two books by my husband and this was the one I decided to dive into first. Another memoir, this time written by Jeanette Winterson, whom I had never heard of before. After a tiny bit of research I have come to discover that she is a pretty well-known British author. Originally from Manchester, Jeanette was adopted at 6 weeks old by a cold woman and her overly passive husband. She grew up in the small northern British town called Arlington, and, in a story that is very reminscent of Roald Dahl’s Matilda (minus the magic), she spent her younger years escaping her dismal home life by reading. Her most famous work that was published in the 1980’s, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, was a fiction that resembles much of her own childhood and early life. Her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, is where the lines between fiction and truth become apparent between the two.

There are times when it will go so wrong that you will barely be alive, and times when you realize that being barely alive, on your own terms, is better than living a bloated half-life on someone else’s terms. – Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Winterson is an intellectual who studied at Oxford and is more well-read than I could ever hope to be, but what is extra endearing about her is the fact that she is mostly self-taught. Her adoptive parents were neglectful at best, although her stories recount trauma that is both emotional and physical abuse. Her mother was deeply religious in a misguided and troubling way, and it’s quite remarkable to read the inner strength that young Jeanette had inside to survive her upbringing. Her intellect, wit, and will to live life on her own terms are all things she uses to navigate her life that began with her biological mother putting her up for adoption and continues through her teenage years when her mother discovers that Jeanette is gay.

…I had realized something important: whatever is on the outside can be taken away at any time. Only what is inside you is safe. – Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? 

I liked Winterson’s departure from the usual layout of memoirs. She writes her memoir as she would a fiction, which is probably why Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit was such a success. She wrote her life as a fiction first in Oranges and then filled in the facts later in her memoir. She intersperses her narrative with bits of poetry and passages from literature, not because it adds flare to her story, but because her life is a tangled web of real life experiences, literature, and poetry. She cannot be physically removed from the books she has read because they have been incorporated into her being. She is a complicated culmination of the stories she reads and the ones she writes throughout her life. 

I had no one to help me, but the T. S. Eliot helped me. So when people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is. It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place. -Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Jeanette Winterson managed to write a complex memoir in bits and pieces, without a clear beginning, middle, or end. She toys with time in a very Stephen Hawking-esque way and she takes the reader on a journey into her mind that is unlike anything I have experienced before. 

The more I read, the more I felt connected across time to other lives and deeper sympathies. I felt less isolated. I wasn’t floating on my little raft in the present; there were bridges that led over to solid ground. Yes, the past is another country, but one that we can visit, and once there we can bring back the things we need. Literature is common ground. It is ground not managed wholly by commercial interests, nor can it be strip-mined like popular culture—exploit the new thing then move on. There’s a lot of talk about the tame world versus the wild world. It is not only a wild nature that we need as human beings; it is the untamed open space of our imaginations. Reading is where the wild things are. -Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

After this somewhat intense and intellectual book, I am thinking I might re-visit my old friend, Summer Sisters by Judy Blume, and discover what I find relatable now that I am a mom and as we approach the early days of summer. 
X Jo 

Talking As Fast As I Can: A (long overdue) Review 

I’m back!

After the longest reading hiatus I’ve taken since my first year of university where I spent much of my down time drinking shots of vodka and dancing on speakers (that feels like a lifetime ago!), I have finally found my way back to my beloved reading. When I got pregnant with my son last summer I had a hard time concentrating long enough to make it through a single chapter, let alone a whole book. I tried and failed to read many books since then until I finally gave up and figured that I would come back to it when I was ready.

And then my son was born.

And my world changed in so many incredible ways and I was deliriously happy, and just plain delirious from the lack of sleep, that the thought of opening a book never even crossed my mind.

That was nearly 5 months ago and I am still adapting to being a new mom to the most handsome boy I ever laid my eyes on (not biased at all), but I am finding myself coming out of the fog of those early newborn days and I woke up last week realizing how much I missed reading.

It took me a few days to decide what to start with: nothing too heavy, something easy to pick up and put down (caring for an infant has its own unique schedule!), and something that would motivate me to get back into what I loved doing in my down time. I decided on the memoir by Lauren Graham, Talking As Fast As I Can. Some might think it an odd choice, but I am a huge Gilmore Girls fan (I have watched and re-watched the entire series three times over and the reboot twice) and I enjoy the endearing awkwardness of Lauren Graham whenever I see her in interviews. It was just what I needed to fall back in love with getting lost between the pages of a book.

But life doesn’t often spell things out for you or give you what you want exactly when you want it, otherwise it wouldn’t be called life, it would be called vending machine. -Lauren Graham, Talking As Fast As I Can

She chronicles some of her earlier childhood days spent living with her dad on a sailboat and when she decided to pursue acting, but she focuses heavily on her recent professional endeavours and ends with the filming of Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life. She intersects her writing with bits of humour that are reminiscent of Lorelai Gilmore, and good pieces of advice that she’s picked up over the years. She is endearing and writes just as she speaks, which is always something I enjoy when reading a memoir. No ghost writers please!

I guess what I’m saying is, let’s keep lifting each other up. It’s not lost on me that two of the biggest opportunities I’ve had to break into the next level were given to me by successful women in positions of power. If I’m ever in that position and you ask me, “Who?” I’ll do my best to say, “You” too. But in order to get there, you may have to break down the walls of whatever it is that’s holding you back first. Ignore the doubt—it’s not your friend—and just keep going, keep going, keep going. -Lauren Graham, Talking As Fast As I Can

I really wanted to love her book, and I genuinely did. It was the perfect pace for me in my current new-mom situation; easy, fun, light-hearted, and such a great way to find my way back to my favourite past time.

Now excuse me as I go sing the theme song to Gilmore Girls while dancing around the living room with my baby.

X Jo