As winter is fast approaching, bringing with it that white stuff (love it or hate it?), you might be looking to shore up your 'To Be Read' pile. Are you looking for something sentimental, or some self-discovery, or a 'who-dun-it', or some psychological suspense, or a social study, or a bit of dark humour with a lot of wisdom? You might find it in my last half-dozen.
In the order they were read:
Snow Road Station is particularly well-suited to the 60-something year old female audience undergoing major life changes such as the ending of a career or a divorce. Author Elizabeth Hay eloquently portrays the need to figure out who you are when the rest of society has forgotten about you - or, paraphrasing the author, it’s paying attention to life that isn’t paying any regard to you. Lulu is an actress who is cancelled in the middle of a stage production after she forgets her lines. She travels to Snow Road Station in Ontario to visit her old friend and ex-sister-in-law Nan who has had poor misfortune and heartbreak in her relationships. They are both 60 something year old women who have different struggles but are both seeking contentment and are re-forging their identity. At Snow Road Station, Lulu escapes the pressures of her working life but is faced with mending, or clarifying, her past, forming new relationships, and deciding what she really wants in the latter years of life. She’s surprised to learn that what makes her happy is not what she thought. Snow Road Station is more about character development than plot. It exquisitely describes the beauty of rural Ontario in 2008. It cleverly tells the story of life through numerous parallels to the theatre world and to the natural rhythms of the seasons - endings and new beginnings; and the story is told in three parts: Snow, Road, and Station - an arrival, a departure, and a long wait, as the author tells us. So many parallels and so much symbolism! Each sentence has meaning, and there is much wisdom about the aging process that could only be written by someone with a few years behind her. Rating: 4.5/5
The Woman Inside is a 'who-dun-it' by Swedish author M. T. Edvardsson. Those Swedish authors really know how to work a mystery! The story opens with the police report of the dead bodies of a pediatrician and his wife, the Rytters, in their mansion. The story is then told in alternating brief chapters in the first person by the three main characters, interspersed with the police officers' interviews and newspaper articles relating to the deaths. You’ll be kept engaged just trying to figure out the crime scene and motives. Is it Bill, the unemployed, financially broke, sad, grieving single father who is struggling to support his young daughter? Is it Karla, the law student who rents a room from Bill and who is the housekeeper for the wealthy deceased Rytters? Is it Jennica, the psychic with no psychic ability who relies on Tinder for her relationships and who is deeply fooled and hurt by the wealthy pediatrician? Or is it someone else altogether? Everyone in this novel, including the deceased, has their stories and secrets. You might not particularly like any of them. This book is a fast read with both good plot and good character development, but I thought the author's prior novel, A Nearly Normal Family, was more intriguing and more skilfully written. Rating: 3/5
If you are looking for a pleasant read with humour and warm feelies, Nightcrawling is probably not for you. It tackles the harsh topics of institutional racism, poverty, neglect, intergenerational trauma, abandonment, class systems, sexual abuse, violence, victimization, destructive family expectations, desperation, hopelessness . . . all packed into 270 pages. Kiara is a 17 year old black girl who lives with her older brother Marcus in the Regal-Hi apartment complex in East Oakland. Her father is deceased and her mother is incarcerated. They have no money and are striving, not just to make ends meet, but to survive - and to be safe in a world that is stacked against them. Next door is nine year old Trevor who Kiara takes in when his mother deserts him. When Marcus refuses to secure gainful employment in order to chase his dream of becoming a rap artist, Kiara is pressured, with no high school education and little work experience, to find some income to keep the three of them alive. She unexpectedly turns to 'nightcrawling', providing sexual acts to men on the street. She finds herself embroiled in a scandal involving the Oakland Police Department (very loosely based on a real-life incident in 2015). She is faced with all the responsibilities and worries of the adult world, as well as with the very real trauma of disadvantaged circumstances, while she should just have to be concerned about normal teenage girl issues. The writing is lyrical and fulI of metaphors and symbolism (the author is an accomplished poet which shows in her style). This book gives us a glimpse into lifestyles and issues about which so many of us know nothing; and it is such a good reminder not to judge – this story is reality for some people, and we don’t know what we would do if we were in desperate circumstances. Rating: 5/5
Strange Sally Diamond is another novel that is artfully written, unique, intriguing, and brilliant - but not for everyone. There are many disturbing themes in this book including abduction, captivity, sexual abuse, violence, child victimization, misogyny; but there are also some moments of lightness and humour. This book has much suspense and intense character development while looking at painful issues and situations that, unfortunately, have occured in real life. Sally Diamond is a 43 year old woman who was adopted at age seven by a psychiatrist in Ireland. Sally is socially incompetent. She takes everything at face value. She has difficulty interpreting and understanding people and reading social cues. Sally cannot remember any of her childhood prior to age seven but when she becomes front page news early in the book, she gradually starts to learn about her life and who she is. Her pursuit of the truth is intensified when she receives a recognizable teddy bear named Toby in the mail, sent to her anonymously by someone in New Zealand. By the end, she unravels some truths about her childhood - and about her not so distant past. Strange Sally Diamond is told in the first person in alternating chapters by Sally in the present and by a person named Peter in the past building up to the present. Sally is, yes, ‘different’, but also likeable and interesting and I was pulling for her to have a good life. This book raises the ages-old issue: are we a product of our genetics or of our upbringing? And how can a person forge their identity if they have experienced trauma and if they see the world differently? As always, read to the end of the epilogue for further food for thought. Rating: 4/5
The Perfumist of Paris is the third in a trilogy by Alka Joshi but can stand alone as a really good novel. This book might be especially enjoyable if you are like me, a woman coming of age in the 1970’s, loves to learn about other cultures, and for whom aromas play such a role in your emotions. It's 1974, and India-born Radha is a 32 year old woman living in Paris with her French husband Pierre and their two young daughters. She has been offered a job in a Parisian perfumerie and realizes that she has a talent for distinguishing and discovering and creating fragrances and for matching the perfect fragrance to any customer seeking their signature scent. She soon finds this is her passion and finds herself developing a lucrative career. Unfortunately, her desire for a self-fulfilling career is at odds with her husband’s rather traditional views and wishes that she should be a stay-at-home mother. Radha is disheartened by her husband’s views and the possible repercussions for their marriage, and she is also plagued by the fact that she gave up an infant son when she was just 13 years of age and has never seen him since, a secret she has harboured for some 17 years. Radha travels to her homeland of India in search of a particular scent which will help her create a new fragrance for a large contract back in Paris, and she learns that her firstborn is on his way to Paris in search of her. This forces Radha into some deep introspection and decisions. The writing is highly descriptive about fragrances, about the old ways and values of Indian culture, and about life in central Paris. The main theme, though, is the struggle of a 30-something year old woman in the 1970's deciding what she wants and making the tough decisions to break out of old expectations and forging the life she wants - one that includes a lucrative, fulfilling career and parenthood. There's just enough drama and mystery to keep you engaged. Rating: 4/5
If you are looking for humour, you will have to find it hidden amidst the dark themes and sexual innuendo and swears (and the wit and wisdom and chaos) of The Crow Valley Karaoke Championships. It's the most important day of the year, the Karaoke Championships, in the fictional small town of Crow Valley in Canada. The story alternates between the five main characters: Roxanne, an assistant to the town’s mayor; Val, a prison guard struggling with alcohol abuse; Molly, the unhappy and frazzled wife of the local Royal Canadian Mountain Police, Gary; Brett, married to Val and who had an extra-marital affair; and Marcel, a run-away convict. Thrown in are numerous characters that make up any small town such as the mayor and the fireman and the gas station owner. Each has their own darkness, be it addictions, violence, suicidal thoughts, lack of identity, grief, guilt, racism, persecution, infidelity, abuse; and some are simply tired of the never-changing life in this small town where, as one character states, “They make bad decisions and sing karaoke”. Each is struggling in their way to keep going and to find peace with their situation. Bigger than life and tying them all together is the memory of Dale Jepson, Roxanne’s husband who died in a fire a year prior. Although he’s held on a pedestal and immortalized, Dale is our reminder that everyone of us is human, that we all have some good and bad, and that we have to realize that we can’t go back. The plot might be a little stretched, but if you are from a small town, you just may nod your head knowingly at some point. The writing is unique, providing visualization and humour. As one character thinks, karaoke night caused both “heartburn and heartache” and, to paraphrase, both zippers and marriages were unravelling. It's a fast read, but it's not light humour. Rating: 3.5/5
That's my last half dozen. In the order of my preference, which might not match my ratings: 1) Snow Road Station 2) The Perfumist of Paris 3) Nightcrawling 4) The Crow Valley Karaoke Championships 5) Strange Sally Diamond and 6) The Woman Inside
I hope you find a few good books to enjoy this winter!
"Reading is an exercise in empathy; an exercise in walking in someone else's shoes for a while." - Malorie Blackman