I once read about a woman who took a reading sabbatical. She packed up a whole load of books and escaped to an isolated cottage in another country and read….and read….and read. Sounds like the ideal vacation to me, and having a whole year to do nothing but read would be like heaven…..and so it has been during the pandemic. Not that there haven’t been other things to do while stuck at home, but there’s certainly been plenty of time for my favorite activity.
When I was younger and in the habit of escaping the Canadian winter for a week down south, I would always tote a pile of books in my suitcase (this was in the days before e-Readers) and spend at least half of the time poolside with a good book, the other days being devoted to exploring whatever tropical destination we happened to be in. One vacation sticks out in my mind, a week on Turks and Caicos, long before it was developed, with five boring books and no way to buy more. The only shopping centre was a strip mall of offshore companies and one souvenir shop devoid of even a rack of paperbacks. For a reader, there’s nothing worse than being stuck on a tropical island with a bad selection of books. I don’t scuba dive/snorkel/can’t even swim, so after my daily walk on the lovely and pristine beach I was bored to tears.
I find other people’s bookshelves fascinating. When they’re interviewing some expert on TV about some matter of vital importance, I’m usually studying the bookshelves behind them and wondering what’s on them, and being envious if they are the nice floor-to-ceiling ones, preferably in white, which I can not install as I have hot water heat rads.
I average about one book a week, and start to feel antsy if I don’t have several in reserve, but this past year my intake has increased dramatically. I spent the first few months of the first lockdown working my way through my stash (18) of mostly non-fiction volumes from bookoutlet, but when the library reopened last summer for curbside pickup it was like Christmas in July!
I keep a book journal where I sporadically list the books I’ve read, usually just tossing the library slips in for later recording. I had intended to do a quarterly review here on the blog, but other topics got in the way, so while I’m not going to list or link to all the books I’ve read during the past year, or even make a best of the best list, here’s a sampling of some of them, with some (honest) observations.
I should note that when I used to do book reviews on Goodreads, before I started blogging, I rated everything a 4, with an occasional 3 or 5, because I only reviewed books I liked. If the book was boring or not to my taste I would not finish it and so left the skewering to other folks. This was partly in an effort to be kind, keeping in mind that the author had poured much time and effort into something which after all did get published, and partly because reading is so subjective. Just because I didn’t like it, didn’t mean someone else wouldn’t enjoy it. But every once in awhile a book, usually a much-hyped bestseller, would annoy me so much that I would pen a fairly blunt review…..so expect things to be a bit more judgmental here. I haven’t had the best selection this past year, not being able to browse the shelves of my local library or bookstore so I was more reliant on the publishers PR, which sometimes can be disappointing.
I love vintage fashion so I thought The Grace Kelly Dress would be an interesting read. Years ago, I read a historical fiction book about the designers behind Jackie Kennedy’s iconic pink boucle suit so I thought this would be something similar, but more of a three generational saga. It was not – it was a whole lot of drama about saying yes to the dress, and the lavender-haired multi-tattooed tech CEO millennial granddaughter eventually said no to her grandmother’s historic couture gown and had it cut down into a pair of trousers. (There I just saved you from a painful read). I don’t think the author intended to make a statement about the difference between the generations but that’s what came across. The 50’s were a much classier era, people had manners.
Separation Anxiety was a DNF (Did Not Finish) – it was on a recommended list but I found the plot so stupid (middle-aged woman facing empty nest “wears” her dog by carrying it around in a sling? – see cover photo) that I never even got past the first ten pages, other than to skim the ending and see she if she stayed with her lazy weed smoking husband. It was supposed to be hilarious and heart-breaking – it was neither. Sad, when the author hadn’t written anything in over a decade, that this is the best she could come up with.
Sophie Hannah had been recommended to me as a good mystery writer and as she has been appointed the heir apparent to carry on Agatha Christie’s Hercules Poirot series (I read the Killings at Kingfisher Hall) but not being a big AG or HP fan, I decided to try one of her own books. Perfect Little Children was a long disappointing read – you simply cannot have a murder mystery with only one suspect. I kept waiting for the twist at the end but there wasn’t one.
I enjoyed the two non-fiction books so much I blogged about them – see The Library Book post and Secondhand – Travel in the new Global Garage Sale.
Every year I swear I’m done with Elin Hilderbrand and yet I find myself ordering her latest. Her characters are now middle-aged and they need to grow up and stop drinking, and driving, and she needs to stop killing them off in the last chapter. Troubles in Paradise was was the last of her winter Caribbean trilogy, but I’m long past the age where living in a tropical paradise would have any appeal to me.
In A Time for Mercy – John Grisham revisits the small southern town of his first book (which I’ve never read), 25 years later. This was a captivating read, but I find sometimes his endings just dwindle away – it’s like he’s done with it, reached his word count, and that’s that. I also read his Camino Winds – a murder mystery set on an island off the coast of Florida during a hurricane. Good descriptions of the hurricane, but again the ending kind of trailed off. The last scene was the middle aged protagonist celebrating in a bar with his buddies. (Female version of Elin Hilderbrand)
I’m a big fan of Lisa Jewell, but her novels can sometimes be disturbing. Invisible Girl was a good read, more like a murder mystery. She really knows how to pull you into the story.
The Talented Miss Farwell – about a small town bookkeeper who collects big time art – was an interesting book, unique in topic and plot line. It was certainly readable, but I’m not quite sure what the point was, and I expected a better ending. I enjoyed it for the view into the elite New York art world.
Elin Hilderbrand – 28 Summers – her annual Nantucket beach read. (see above) Corny premise – star crossed Lovers meet on Nantucket the same weekend every year for three decades? But they can’t be together the other 51 weeks because he’s married and his wife is running for President. It was such an unrealistic plot it was funny, and not in a good way. If it wasn’t for Nantucket I wouldn’t bother with her, but I’ve always wanted to go there.
The Guest List – murder at a fancy resort wedding on an island off the coast of Ireland – good characterization and suspense. A Reese Witherspoonl bookclub selection. I enjoyed this one so much I read her previous book The Hunting Party – set in Scotland.
Stranger in the Lake – murder mystery – Kimberly Belle was a new author to me, but I tried her other books and could not get into them. (see Pretty Little Wife comment)
I used to love Joanna Trollope, but she’s been more miss than hit the past decade – Mum and Dad was not one of her best. Drama about a British couple who are vineyard owners in Spain and their millennial aged children. Poor character development, stilted and repetitive dialogue (Are you okay Mum?) and really the parents were only in their early 70’s, not even old enough to really worry about yet. A lot of stuff about sibling rivalry and not much of a plot.
Hidden Valley Road – non-fiction book about a family of twelve children in the 60/70’s and six of the ten boys were diagnosed with schizophrenia. Decades later, the two youngest, both girls, collaborate with a journalist investigating a genetic link to the disease. An Oprah Book club selection, which I normally avoid like the plague, but this was totally fascinating. But then I like a good medical book and have had some exposure to schizophrenics through my work. Be grateful for a sound mind. The research was interesting, particularly the preventative angle. Not sure why they kept having kids when advised not to, but it must have been a nightmare living in that house. Both parents had died, so we do not get their POV.
Dear Edward was a library bookclub selection which I skimmed but decided I did not want to read, as it was about a 12 year old boy who is the sole survivor of a plane crash which killed 183 people, including his parents. The world is depressing enough….
Mary Higgins Clark was the Queen of Suspense, and I blogged about her passing last year at the age of 93. (link) Piece of My Heart is the last in the series she co-wrote with Alafair Burke. It’s clear that even at her advanced age MHClark was the mastermind of the duo. This was so unlike the previous works that Ms. Burke must have finished this one mostly on her own, as it was as dull as toast, with little to no suspense.
The Midnight Library – by Matt Haig was good, but got off to a slow start, and I did not find the writing as a female protagonist quite believable. (In an author interview he remarked that he had made an earlier attempt from a male POV. He also said he was striving for something hopeful like It’s A Wonderful Life). Writing about parallel universes seems to be a popular theme these days, (who knows how many other dimensions are out there we might be currently living in. Some of them might even contain aliens!) I was close to abandoning it, but LA (fellow book lover and blogger of Waking up on the Wrong Side of 50), convinced me to stick it out and I was glad I did as the ending was worth it. Besides I love anything with a library in it.
Lean Out – by Tara Henley – I enjoyed this non-fiction ode to time-out so much that I blogged about in My Literary Salon. I seem to have had better luck with non-fiction this year.
Two of these were DNR or did not get even started. The weather turned too warm for Insta-Pot soup, and World Travel – the Anthony Bourdain book, written by his collaborator after his death but full of his own quotes, had so much swearing in it I found it offensive and merely skimmed a few chapters. I used to watch his tv show occasionally but have never read his first, Kitchen Confidential or any of his other books so I have nothing to compare it to.
When the Stars Go Dark – by Paula McLain of The Paris Wife fame – about a CA detective searching for missing girls, was good for her first attempt at a non-historical/murder mystery.
The Push was a riveting read – motherhood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, especially when you have a deeply disturbed sociopath child. I’m still trying to figure out what I think about this book, so it would make excellent bookclub fare. As a first-time novelist, I wonder where she got the idea, but then we have only to look at the news and wonder what it would be like to be the parent of a child who commits a violent crime, even if she is only seven.
Pretty Little Wife – DNF – reminder – do not order anything with the wife/exwife/trophy wife as the murder victim/suspect/crime solver etc.
Anxious People – Sorry LA – I know you said to give it a chance, and I may someday but it was overdue and I had to take it back. By the same author as A Man Called Ove – which I loved and which Tom Hanks is re-making as a movie….I enjoyed the Swedish version.
The Listening Path – by Julia Cameron – a big disappointment which I blogged about anyway.
Keep Sharp – by Dr. Sanjay Gupta. I loved this book, it’s an easy read for non-medical folks, full of common sense advice but it’s scary to think the decisions we make in middle-age determine how well we live in old age. I may blog on this later. He has another book coming out later in the year – World War C – Lessons from the Covid Pandemic.
The Last Garden in England – library bookclub selection, a multi-generational story about an English garden. A good tale, but nothing much to discuss, character driven with the garden merely a background.
A Promised Land – presidential memoir by Barrack Obama – although it’s not pictured here. I read his two earlier books but they were slim volumes. I’m sure his time in the White House was interesting but 700 pages was just way too much detail for me. I got to page 200 and it was still the primaries, and I had to return it and besides, Michelle said it better and more concisely in Becoming. I’ve not heard too much about this book after the initial buzz, but there is to be a volume two. I like to read in bed with the book propped up on my lap and it was just way too heavy…..literally, it weighed a ton.
The Last Bookshop in London – this was a surprisingly good read for light historical fiction, but then I love anything with a bookshop. Set in WW2 England during the Blitz….you can imagine the rest.
The Windsor Knot – cute premise and title with Queen Elizabeth playing sleuth. It was a slow, not very suspenseful read but somehow I do not think the Queen would be amused. Not everyone’s cup of tea.
The Lost Apothecary – also a good historical fiction murder mystery, but then I’m biased towards anything with an apothecary, especially a female one, even if it was a place you went to obtain poison for your intended (male) victim. The 1800 London past woven into a present day story, with a surprisingly hopeful ending.
Biggest disappointing read of the year which I had been so looking forward to was Jodi Picoult’s – The Book of Two Ways. Book opens with married female protagonist surviving a plane crash. Does she go home to her husband and child or fly off someplace else? Waded through 400 pages on death doulas, AI, Egyptian hieroglyphics and archaeology, much of which was standard university lecture material and had little to do with the plot, only to arrive at a totally ambiguous ending. I guess if you live in a parallel universe you don’t have to chose between your responsible-but-no-longer-in-love-with husband and your sexy grad-school Indiana-Jones type boyfriend because you can have both? Or maybe you the reader gets to decide? The ending was just plain annoying. In the author notes she thanks her editor for making her change it as it was so much better, which only left me wondering what the original ending might have been. I’ve never known Jodi Picoult to write a bad book before so it was doubly disappointing. I found her last one, Small Great Things, (how someone becomes a white supremacist) a timely and outstanding read.
There were many other books I didn’t take photos of…..some the kind you can’t put down.
I particularly enjoyed The Pull of the Stars – by Emma Donoghue about an obstetrical hospital in Ireland during the 1918 Spanish flu, which I found riveting, both for it’s historical obstetrical detail (not advised for anyone pregnant but many of my friends were OB nurses) and for it’s depiction of the pandemic (much the same as today, masks, distancing, fresh air, but thank god no carbolic acid disinfectant). I was surprised by the ending, but after I researched the author it make sense. Only a well respected writer (the Room) could get away with no quotation marks around the dialogue, an odd feature which didn’t seem to distract from the story.
I love murder mysteries and psychological thrillers, if they’re not too gory and I have my favorite authors – One by One by Ruth Ware was excellent, the setting a snowy ski chalet in the French alps with eight co-workers. The End of Her – by Canadian author Shari Lapena who is consistently good also, and Grace is Gone – by Clare McIntosh. Woman on the Edge – by Samantha Bailey, about a woman who hands her baby to another woman on the subway platform before she jumps, was also an interesting read.
For historical fiction, The Book of Lost Names – Kristen Harmel – a WW2 saga about a female forger helping Jewish children escape, and The Paris Library -Janet Skeslien Charles about librarians working at the American Library in Paris during the Nazi occupation, – were both good reads.
I hope you have found something interesting here for your summer reading. I also have a link to My Literary Salon reviews on the front pages of my website on the main menu under Books.
It’s either feast or famine, and I have little out from the library at the moment, which has been the recent victim of a “cyber security incident” thus disabling the online reservation process. I hope they get it fixed soon, or we Readers will all soon be in withdrawal. I’m always up for a recommendation, so please leave any favorite reads or authors you’ve discovered in comments.
PS. 3000 words – and I was criticizing Obama? Maybe I’ll stick to a quarterly review in the future…