One month ago it seemed that summer would last forever, but here we are, thinking of sweaters, pumpkin spice lattes, and fall reading. I did manage to read and review some good books while the sun was still shining so brightly.
There might be a book or two in my last half dozen that appeals to you. There's something 'heavy', a few tender novels, a possible American classic, and a unique war tale.
In the order they were read:
Sing Her Down -This is a heavy read that just might become the subject of women's studies classes. Some might be opposed to the harshness while others might like the thriller, drama, and mystery aspects. The real issue is the victimization of women, the sense of powerlessness, the guilt and shame for not handling the abuse, the built-up anger, and then the explosion of violence. Dios and Florida have been granted an early release from women's prison due to the COVID crisis. They had a twisted relationship while in jail. Florida is seen as a rich white woman while Dios pressures her to see that she is not being honest with herself or about who she is or about her violent behaviour. Dios becomes obsessive in pressuring Florida to become her real self. Florida tries to avoid Dios while in prison and hopes to be rid of her completely once they are released. However, Dios and Florida are soon reunited in treacherous circumstances. As Florida again tries to avoid the angry and scary Dios, the chase begins through the streets of Los Angeles. After an apparent murder, the cat and mouse game now involves a female investigator. It all comes to an end at the intersection of Olympic and Western – as is foretold in the prologue, where “it’s just another intersection of bad and worse”. This book is written in both brief dialogue and highly descriptive prose. If you do venture in, remember, this book has violence, sexual abuse, and death. This one is hard to rate. I'll give it 4/5 because it is brave and well-written, but 'it's a lot', as they say.
Pebble & Dove - This is a fast, easy, mellow Canadian book about the complications of teenage/parent/marital relationships with a dose of wildlife preservation and social media thrown in. Dove is a young teenage girl who has made some poor decisions out of hurt and revenge as she simply tries to manage her peer relationships. These decisions have morphed into negative publicity and a suspension from school. Lauren is Dove’s mother whose life is going off the rails - her husband wants a divorce, her candle-selling business is failing, her financial debt is mounting, her daughter doesn’t converse with her, and she and her now-deceased mother were estranged years ago. She is unaware of the upsets and events in young Dove’s life. Lauren takes Dove, rather suddenly, to Florida to stay at her deceased mother’s decrepit trailer at the Swaying Palms Mobile Home Park. Here, she meets a cast of characters, and it is here, through a rather strange relationship with a captive manatee (Pebble) and her caregiver, that both Lauren and Dove make some sense of their worlds, of their emotions, of their behaviours, of their family - and of each other. Character development is the strength of this book. It's a quick read about when to let go and what is worth fighting for. Rating: 3/5
The Berry Pickers - This is a Canadian gem beginning in 1962 with a Nova Scotian Mi'kmaw family travelling to Maine for their annual summer berry-picking job. A few weeks after their arrival in Maine, four year old Ruthie was last seen by six year old Joe, sitting on her favourite rock, before she seemingly disappears into thin air. Despite the family’s intensive search (with no help from police authorities) that summer and many summers thereafter, Ruthie was never found in the surrounding fields and forest. The story is told in the first person in alternating chapters from the parallel perspectives of Joe and of Norma, a girl who grows up in Maine. Joe tries to live with the guilt of his decisions and failures through leading a rather transient existence from coast to coast while Norma grows up safe and well-cared for in a middle class, but rather rigid, family who appear to harbour some secrets and deception. The strength of the book is that although we know very early that Norma is Ruthie, we are left eagerly reading to find if and when the family reunites; and we are absorbed with the actual story of Joe’s and Norma’s/Ruthie’s lives, as they grow into middle age, how they live with their memories and emotions and thoughts, and their pursuit of closure. This book is simply but eloquently written. There is sadness but the real theme is resiliency and love. Rating: 4/5
Recipe for a Good Life - Simple. Sweet. Charming. Uncomplicated. Old-fashioned. Kitty is a writer of crime fiction in 1955 Montreal who lacks confidence and whose marriage is on the rocks. As well, she struggles with the emotional absence of her father Leo who still grieves for her mother who died some 25 years ago, and with the harshness of her father’s housekeeper Martha who is also Kitty’s mother-in-law. After Kitty experiences writer’s block, especially in the genre of crime fiction, her publisher pays for her to take a brief sabbatical in rural Cape Breton, in Nova Scotia, Canada. Here she meets a host of warm, down to earth, people, especially the Bailey family, comprised of the matriarch Bertha and her 10 adult children (one, Wallace, a particularly good looking single son) and 30 grandchildren, as well as a number of locals, one being Ethel who faithfully listens in to the gossip on the party telephone line. Kitty learns things she never thought of, including cooking on a wood stove and the kindness of neighbours in a close-knit community. Meantime, her famous actor husband Kurt remains in Montreal, oblivious to the fact that his marriage is falling apart. It's simple and predictable, but the joy is in the story and how it comes to resolution. It’s about loneliness and grief and about making tough decisions and finding yourself and moving forward. And it’s also about finding love in many forms. This is a good book just to sit and read with a nice cup of coffee or tea – and some home baking. Rating: 3.5/5
The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store - Intricate and intelligent, this might become an American classic or epic novel. This book is a window into society’s deeply engrained issues of prejudice and inequality. A dead body is discovered in 1972, but we hear nothing of the body again until the end as the story winds itself from 1925 to 1972 in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, more specifically in Chicken Hill. Chicken Hill is a rather rundown neighbourhood of African Americans and of Jewish immigrants from a number of European countries who have fled persecution, both groups very different but sharing a type of bond as they both struggle to survive in an America where the elite establishment makes the rules. Moshe Ludlow is a Jewish theatre manager who opens his theatre to African American performers and audiences. His wife, Chona Ludlow, owns and manages The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store, a money-losing endeavour due to her willingness to extend credit to both the Jewish and African American communities but never seeking repayment. Chona leads the way in protecting and harbouring a deaf black boy from institutionalization. Besides Moshe and Chona, you’ll meet people like Fatty, Big Soap, Dodo, Monkey Pants, Paper, Son of Man, Snooks . . . The author does not glorify any one group of people – instead, he builds characters from all walks of life, some of who might not be all that ethical. There is Jewish persecution and immigration, African American struggles for equality in opportunities and living standards, poverty, systems that are made to self-perpetuate, manipulation, greed, physical disability, and in-fighting. There is some questionable behaviour and some violence and sexual misconduct. But the main theme is the struggle of any marginalized person or group to survive and to achieve equality in a judgemental world and, more importantly, the portrayal that love and kindness and community can save and change lives and how people can work together, despite differing backgrounds. It's a classic. Rating: 5/5
Nothing Good Happens In Wazirabad On Wednesday - Unique in title, style, story, and characters, this book is worth a read to the end. Set in Wazirabad, Kabul, Aghanistan, in the 1990's, the townspeople are striving to survive the harshness of civil war. There are many characters, and the story is not linear but is told more in the form of brief segments that are intertwined and rely heavily on memories, dreams, and story-telling. The people have become accustomed, or almost immune, to violence that can happen right in their street. Electricity is non-existent which makes daily living difficult. Finances and food are lacking. But, in war, there are lulls in fighting during which life goes on, and that is the strength of this book – how people find a way to live and actually make their own pleasure in the middle of trauma. The characters in this book are all average people who use any number of methods to survive and build a life amidst hardship. Some of these methods might be their memories, gossip, rumours, story telling, manipulation, crime, humour, belief in the mystic or in miracles or divine intervention – all tactics to remove themselves from the reality of war and to feel some semblance of self-control. And in the midst of this chaos, there is obvious love in many different forms, especially when times are toughest. The writing in this book is beautiful and descriptive, and the later chapters contain some real gems about the human condition. Rating: 4.5/5
And that is my last half dozen. Sometimes my favourites are not the ones I've rated the highest. Some really good books are not meant for everyone. My favourites, in order: 1) The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store 2) The Berry Pickers 3) Nothing Good Happens In Wazirabad On Wednesday 4) Recipe for a Good Life 5) Sing Her Down and, finally, 6) Pebble & Dove
I hope you find one or two books to enjoy with your pumpkin spice latte.
"You know you've read a good book when you turn the last page and feel a little as if you have lost a friend." Paul Sweeney