It’s a perfect Christmas morning here in our snowy part of the country, and looking outside the window is a bit like looking into a snow globe that has just been shaken up. It’s been a month since my last post, and while you may think that I’ve been on a blog-cation, these past four weeks have been anything but for this blogger. Every weekend has been busy with preparations to rent out our condo to our new tenant, and let me assure you that I would have preferred blogging to doing that. But it’s all ready to go now and at least I’ve been reading, so I have a number of books to tell you about.
The first book is The It Girl by Ruth Ware, which was, in my opinion, not her best book but also not her worst, just kind of middle-of-the-road. Ten years after the death of her roommate, Hannah Jones is still coming to terms with this horrific event while expecting her first child. A decade earlier, she was a new student at Oxford who could hardly believe she was there, never imagining that she would one day be a part of this picturesque beacon of higher learning. Surrounded by fellow students who all come from wealthy backgrounds, she felt alternately accepted and alienated, depending on the situation. Her very wealthy, privileged roommate, April Clark-Cliveden, an enigma who took everything in life for granted, was both a great friend and perhaps also a manipulative adversary. After discovering April's body in their room, Hannah spends the next ten years in a fog, never truly embracing her life and all the happiness that should have been hers to enjoy. When John Neville, one of the college porters and the man who was convicted of April’s murder, dies in prison, Hannah is contacted by an investigative reporter who wants to dig deeper into the historic murder to prove that he was innocent, something Neville had claimed from the beginning. This opens up a wound that had never really closed for Hannah, and she undertakes to help this reporter despite her advanced pregnancy and the advice of everyone around her to leave it alone. If John Neville wasn’t the killer, who could it have been? And can she find out the truth before she or her unborn child end up dead, too? This was a page-turner for sure, but it was just OK. The alternating chapters were a bit challenging, but it was interesting enough to keep me reading to the very last page, so I’d say you could do worse if you were in the mood for an Oxford-based “before” and “after” suspense novel.
The next book I read was Christmas at the Vinyl Cafe by Stuart McLean for our December book club. I’ve been a fan of “The Vinyl Cafe” and Stuart McLean for years, with “Dave cooks the turkey” being one of my favourite Christmas stories, so I wanted to share this with my book club members in case they hadn’t been exposed to this amazing Canadian talent. Not surprisingly, all but one of my members were also long-time fans, and the one who wasn’t definitely is now! In case you are unfamiliar with these stories, they are all about Dave and Morley and Sam and Stephanie, a family living in a small town in I think Nova Scotia, and their interactions within their neighbourhood and community. Dave owns a used record shop called “The Vinyl Cafe” whose motto is “We may not be big, but we’re small”. These always funny, often moving stories were originally aired as episodes on a radio show on CBC from 1994-2015, and it was with great sadness that fans learned of McLean’s death from cancer in 2017. My book club members, who read Home from the Vinyl Cafe, loved revisiting familiar stories and hearing from Dave and Morley again after so many years. We all agreed that when reading the stories, we read them while hearing McLean’s voice in our heads, his dramatic pauses and distinctive inflections. If you haven’t heard Stuart Mclean, I would highly recommend that you check out “Dave cooks the turkey” online today, as it’s a perfect addition to any Christmas celebration.
The next book I read was a sci fi selection that was recommended by a friend, Planetfall by Emma Newman. This novel is set in the near-distant future and focuses on a colony of settlers on an unnamed planet who, twenty-two years before, followed Suh-Mi, a scientist who, after discovering a mysterious plant while on a hike and eating part of it, fell into a coma, only to regain consciousness with a vision to leave behind the ravaged planet Earth and travel to find God among the stars. Suh leads a group of followers, including her friend and lover Renata (Ren), and they do discover an alien structure known as God’s City, but Suh enters this structure and never comes out. We enter the story as a mysterious man approaches the colony claiming to be Suh’s grandson and the son of two followers who were believed to have perished in the accidental crash of one of the capsules. As the date for the annual Seed Ceremony approaches, Ren is wondering if she and their leader Mack should continue in their charade, considering the arrival of this man to be a signal to reveal the truth about this mission. But what is the truth, and can she reveal it without destroying the colony and losing herself? The mystery in this book is intriguing, but it was Ren’s character, her tightly woven shell that slowly begins to unravel, that was most compelling for me, the thing that made me want to keep reading. This is the first book in a series, and the second book, After Atlas, was actually the book that my friend recommended, but when I started that one, I felt that I needed the backstory to appreciate it and decided to read the first book. I will definitely read After Atlas at some point, just not now, as I don’t have the time, but I would definitely recommend this series to anyone who enjoys reading novels that ask thought-provoking questions and make readers consider our place in the cosmos and all the responsibilities that go with it.
Then I read Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield, another novel that, coincidentally, focuses on the return of a woman from a failed mission, this time to the depths of the ocean, and her wife’s struggles to adjust to her lover’s transformation. Leah is a grant-writer and works from home, while her wife Miri, a marine biologist, goes on research expeditions for various companies. Miri’s most recent expedition was supposed to last for three weeks, but due to some unexplained malfunction, she and her crew mates were trapped in their submarine in the ocean depths for more than six months. When she returns, Miri is not the person she was before the expedition, and Leah must learn to endure and cope with Miri’s ever-worsening condition as she tries to find answers and accept help from friends, while also creating an insulated existence for both of them. I don’t want to say too much about this, because the evolution of the condition, Miri’s ever-evolving needs and Leah’s responses to them, are what makes this book unputdownable, a slim book that seems to be so much longer, but in a really good way. The chance reading of Planetfall and then Our Wives Under the Sea, both novels with such similar themes, seemed very coincidental to me, and I found myself looking for comparisons to Newman’s novel while reading Armfield’s book. Our Wive Under the Sea was the more literary and definitely more philosophical, yet both managed to explore similar themes of love and loss, grief and coping mechanisms, and the value of love at any cost. I’m still thinking about the ending of this book, but I would definitely recommend it to just about anyone who wants a short book that has great depth (pun totally intended!!).
And to round out the post, I have a Young Adult book to tell you about, The Door of No Return by award-winning author Kwame Alexander. This novel, set in West Africa’s Asante kingdom in 1860 and written as a series of short, free-verse poems, focuses on eleven-year-old Kofi Offin, a boy who leads a normal life; he enjoys school, loves his family, especially his older brother, Kwasi, and has a crush on his distant cousin Ama. His other, slightly older cousin often beats and bullies him, and Kofi finally comes up with a competition he can actually win against him. But during a boxing match at the Kings Festival between Upper and Lower Kwanta, Kwasi accidentally causes the death of the opposing ruler’s son, and when the king retaliates, it changes the course of Kofi’s life forever. This moving, engrossing novel, the first in a trilogy, is a must for any school library, but while it begins innocently enough for middle grade students, it is definitely meant for intermediate grades, as it contains themes of imprisonment, abuse, rape and human trafficking. It was a fantastic, engrossing, enlightening book, told in a way that was easy to read without diminishing the severity of the events. According to the author, this is historical fiction based on real events and shares the story of the people of Africa before slavery rather than only focusing on the slavery aspect of their history.
Whew! That was a lot of books to write about. I’m now going to make a delicious hot oatmeal breakfast and enjoy some oat nog as a Christmas treat. Next week I’ll have my “best of” lists to share, but until then, I’m hoping to read a couple of good books that may be contenders. Merry Christmas everyone!Bye for now…