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photo credit: Paul Massey

When I was in high school, there were three women who dominated conversations of Canadian Literature: Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, and Carol Shields.  I happily read Atwood and dipped in and out of Munro’s short stories but the only thing I’d read by Shields was her slim biography of Jane Austen.  It wasn’t until the start of this year that I properly made her acquaintance when I picked up The Republic of Love by Carol Shields.

This tender and leisurely-told tale was the perfect book to start the year with.  It is spring in Winnipeg when we meet thrice-divorced Tom Avery, a radio host who is days away from turning forty, and thirty-five-year-old folklorist Fay McLeod, who is splitting up with the boyfriend she’s spent the last several year living with (just as she did the one before, and the one before that).  It takes until the half-way point of the book for the two to meet, by which point we’ve witnessed several months in each of their lives.  We’ve seen their kindness, their insecurity, their love for their families, and their longing for more love in their own lives.  They are lovely people and, like their interested friends, colleagues, and family members, you want desperately for them to both find happiness and you know they can find it with one another.

As you follow their lives and see the web of connections amongst their friends and families that could bring them together, you wait.  And then the meeting happens and it is magic, the kind of magic we all wish could happen to us and which seems mundane from the outside but life changing when it happens to you.  And Shields’ genius is that she makes it feel possible.

But a key part of Shields’ brilliance and what gives the novel its immense warmth is that Tom and Fay exist within their families and communities.  And when the power of their new love causes someone in that circle to rethink their own relationship, there are ripples that upend Fay’s world and leave her questioning everything she knows of love and commitment.

I loved every word of this.  Shields captures normal life so well that when love arrives, it feels both extraordinary and entirely natural.  It changes Tom and Fay’s lives but does not disrupt or dominate them – love settles in at the heart of things, creating a warm glow that casts from them out to those around them.  And those people around them are the key to what makes this book work so well.  The secondary characters are rich and important to Tom and Fay.  Their parents, their exes, their godparents and godchildren are all parts of their lives and therefore parts of the story.  Their fears, their reversals, their kindnesses and crises all matter.  It is a close knit and entirely recognizable world and that is all too rare to find in fiction.

For once, I’m happy that I waited to read something.  I think I would have enjoyed this if I’d read it as a teen but reading it now, as a thirty-five-year-old single woman reading about a thirty-five-year-old single woman, was perfect.  Fay’s fears and hopes are ones that I may have absorbed without reflection as a younger reader but now they resonate as familiar echoes of my own thoughts.

badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

Sharlene has the Mr Linky this week.

A week of very new reads for me: five of these have been published within the last four months.  For once I get to feel up-to-date!  I’m not feeling well (probably not Covid but who’s to say these days?  We’re encouraged to stay at home rather than get tested if symptoms are mild and no medical help is needed) so have plenty of light reading here (definitions of “light” may vary) to keep me distracted.

The Siren of Sussex by Mimi Matthews – a brand new release from Matthews, whose historical novels I only discovered last year.

A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske – much-praised historical fantasy debut that I’m excited to get in to.

Weather Girl by Rachel Lynn Solomon – colleagues scheming to set up their bosses sounds like solid rom com material (and was, in fact, in Netflix’s forgettable but economically-named Set It Up).  I enjoyed The Ex Talk by Solomon last year so am hoping for good things with this.

The Kill, After the Fire, and Let the Dead Speak by Jane Casey – my obvious obsession to kick off 2022 is this crime series from Jane Casey, centered around detective Maeve Kerrigan.  I cannot read them fast enough (which I both love and hate because the series is only 9 books – plus a few stories – long) and am so impressed that they are all so good.  Good enough to have me turning away from all other books, despite this being a genre I usually run away from.

100 Things We’ve Lost to the Internet by Pamela Paul – Paul (who also wrote My Life with Bob) looks – sometimes comically, sometimes sadly – at all the ways our lives have changed since the internet became widely available.

Royal Flash by George Macdonald Fraser – I’m trusting that the adventures of Flashman will provide the right comic balance to all the crime novels I’m reading.

Let’s Get Physical by Danielle Friedman – I’d prefer to have this in physical rather than ebook form but am too excited to wait.  This is a history of women’s exercise culture and it looks great.

What did you pick up this week?

photo credit: Scott Frances

badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

As promised last week, my holds have all arrived so there is no shortage of things for me to read now!

The Good Companions by J.B. Priestley – a 1920s novel about a theatrical group sounds like a recommendation from Simon but this actually came from checking through a list of James Tait Black award winners.

The Two Bishops by Agnes Sligh Turnbull – I thoroughly enjoyed my first encounter with Agnes Sligh Turnbull last year when I read The Gown of Glory, about a minister and his family in Pennsylvania in the early 20th century, so am looking forward to reading more by her.

The Kew Gardens Girls by Posy Lovell – a recent historical novel about young women working as gardeners at Kew during the First World War.

Strangers in Skye by Mabel Esther Allan – Given what a ridiculously large number of books Mabel Esther Allan wrote, it’s remarkable that I haven’t read anything by her before.  Or perhaps not when you consider how many months it took to get my hands on just one of her books, but it was worth the wait.  This is a fun 1950s story of a young woman who – ordered by her doctor to spend the summer resting her eyes and not reading before starting university in the fall – joins her brother on Skye where he is the warden of a newly opened youth hostel.

The Viscount and the Vicar’s Daughter and The Work of Art by Mimi Matthews – I discovered Matthews’ gentle romances last year and have been enjoying working my way through them.  These are the last I have left to read – just in time to enjoy her new release which came out yesterday, The Siren of Sussex.

The Burning and The Reckoning by Jane Casey – I’ve been hearing good things about this crime series for a few years and finally am giving it a try with the first two books.  It’s not a genre I usually read but I’ve just finished The Burning and can confirm it was excellent.  I’m feeling very clever that I checked out book number two so I could jump directly into it after finishing the first.

Five Tuesdays in Winter by Lily King – like crime, I don’t often read short stories so clearly I’m feeling open to the unfamiliar as we start 2022!

What did you pick up this week?

design credit: Kate Guinness Design

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

Sharlene has the Mr Linky this week.

Here’s a shocking way to start the new year: I haven’t been to the library yet.  Don’t worry, this isn’t a trend – god forbid – but I did manage my holds over the holidays so there was nothing lingering on the shelves.  They are all enroute now so I’ll have lots to share next week.

Until then, I thought it would be fun to look back on some library stats for 2021:

88% of the 289 books I read last year were from the library.

Of my Top Ten Books of 2021, 9 were library loans.  My lovely Slightly Foxed edition of Love and War in the Apennines was the only exception.

I borrowed 53 books via the inter-library loan system.  There were only 11 requests they were not able to fill.  Given how many libraries have suspended ILLs during Covid and how logistics have been challenged by horrific flooding and mud slide damage since November (for a while, all roads linking Vancouver to the rest of the mainland province/Canada were closed and you could only access the city through the US.  We’re still not fully restored and won’t be for some time), this is amazing.

The library purchased 35 of the 65 books I recommended.  And I haven’t given up on some of the requests made later in the year (since purchases slowed when supply chains halted).  They haven’t taken up my suggestions for the British Library Women Writers titles or anything from the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint at Dean Street Press (the only mark against them) but hope survives – and it doesn’t hurt me to buy my own books every now and then.  They have been adding Handheld Press books both with and without my prompting, so clearly there are great minds at work in the acquisitions team.

A very good record, I think!  No wonder I love my library so much.

It is publication day for the 11 new editions of D.E. Stevenson books from the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint at Dean Street Press!

As long-time readers may recall, I discovered Stevenson back in 2010 and spent the next three or four years tracking down everything I could – not an easy task given that only a couple of her titles were in print (this was when the inter-library loan system became my BFF).  But readers no longer have that problem, thanks in large part to Scott for reissuing so many of her books.  There are now 19 D.E.S. titles available from Furrowed Middlebrow, and they include most of what I think are her best books.

Here are the 11 titles being released today (ranked by my preference for them, with links to reviews):

Excellent

The English Air (one of my top ten books of 2013)

Five Windows

 

Very Good

Green Money (one of my top ten books of 2018)

The Blue Sapphire

 

Good

Charlotte Fairlie

 

Sick Bed Reading

Anna and Her Daughters

Kate Hardy

The Tall Stranger

The Fair Miss Fortune

The Musgraves

Young Mrs Savage

 

You can see the beautiful covers for all the new edition’s on Scott’s blog.  I’m looking forward to replacing some of my tattered old copies and getting my hands on favourites – like Green Money – for the first time!

What can we say about 2021 other than let’s not do that again?  After sailing calmly through 2020, everything blew up in 2021 for me, with chaotic work stress (I reported to four different people in 2021, two of whom both joined and left the company during that period), scary hospital visits (see work stress), apocalyptic weather, and just the constant, draining feeling that real life is on hold and when you dare to plan as though it’s not…time for new restrictions and endless cancellations.

On the plus side, I enjoyed some excellent local trips, welcomed a new nephew who shares my birthday, rejoiced to get my Covid vaccine shots, and read a truly ridiculous number of books.  Here are my ten favourites for the year:

10. River Kings (2021) – Cat Jarman
Science is so cool!  That is the only reasonable response to bioarchaeologist Jarman’s examination of Viking trading routes, tracking how an Indian bead could have come to rest in an English Viking grave.  So much of what is written (and televised) these days about the Vikings focuses only on their excursions westward, but Jarman looks at the skeletons and burial items found in the UK and finds goods – and people – who came from much further away than Scandinavia.  Isotope analysis, which allows archaeologists to identify markers for foodstuffs eaten in childhood and therefore distinguish between someone who grew up eating English wheat versus Danish wheat even when their DNA shows the same ethnic origins, thereby providing the ability to sort immigrants from locals, is clearly the coolest thing I have learned about this year.

9. Black Earth City (2002) – Charlotte Hobson
Hobson arrived on a study exchange in a provincial Russian town just as the Soviet Union was crumbling.  This elegant memoir of her time there gives a vivid portrait of what it was like to live through that bleak change – a time of great uncertainty, devastating hyperinflation, and heady youth.

8. Our Trip Around the World (2020) – Renate Belczyk
In a year with only local travel, I delighted in this memoir about two German girls who set off around the world in the 1950s.

7. Love and War in the Apennines (1971) – Eric Newby
Newby’s tale of his escape from an Italian POW camp and months on the run in the mountains, being sheltered and aided by locals (including his future wife), is told with the same sense of fun and adventure as his great travel books.  The fear and discomfort of his life as an escapee is well told, with great respect for those who risked their lives to aid him.  In delightful contrast, the book begins with his lighthearted descriptions of capture and time in prison: I will never forget his despair that fashion-conscious Italians cannot be fooled by ersatz prison-made clothing or fail to be entertained by his memory of the “temporarily expatriate members of White’s Club in captivity” who played baccarat and sent instructions to their London bankers – via the Red Cross – for the settlement of resulting debts.

6. The Unquiet Dead (2015) – Ausma Zehanat Khan
For someone who rarely reads mysteries, I not only loved this but became slightly evangelical about it, pushing it (and subsequent books in the series) onto everyone I know.  Inspector Esa Khattak and Sergeant Rachel Getty, Toronto-based investigators from the Community Policing Section, are tipped off to look more closely at a man’s death from what looks like a fall.  They are soon drawn into a case of hidden identities and revenge, all centered around the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims during the Yugoslav wars.  Khan, who holds a PhD in international human rights law, bases characters’ experience on real-life events and the result is a chilling look at how the past is always with us.

5. Twilight of Democracy (2020) – Anne Applebaum
Applebaum, a Pulitzer-prize-winning historian who specializes in Eastern Europe, has been warning the world about the erosion of democracy in the West for years (and continues to do so in excellent features for The Atlantic magazine).  In this very personal book, she discusses what it has been like to see first-hand the changes in Poland (where her husband is a politician and current member of the European parliament) and notes with alarm what has been happening in America and the UK.  Her portrait of the opportunistic Boris Johnson, who she knows from their time as journalists, is particularly good.  It’s not cheerful reading but, as we head into what looks to be an especially dramatic year for democracy in America, it’s important and brilliantly done.

4. The Bell in the Lake (2018) – Lars Mytting (translated by Deborah Dawkin)
It has been so long since I read something that pulled me in a deeply and quickly as this did, immersing me in the small Norwegian village of Buntagen in 1880.  The story of dismantling the village’s stave church – including its two bells with their long history – is ultimately a tragedy as the hand of fate twists and turns.  Kai Schweigaard, the village’s energetic young pastor, is excited for a modern new church – one large enough to hold everyone and insulated enough not to freeze them to death – and to bring the villagers into the modern world.  Astrid Henke, the daughter of one of Buntagen’s prominent but struggling farming families, dreams of travel and life outside of her village but longs to preserve the sister bells in the church, donated centuries before by her family.  With the arrival of Gerhard Schönauer from Dresden to oversee the church’s transport, a love triangle emerges with the protection of the bells at its heart.  Best of all: this is the first in a trilogy, with the second book being released in translation in March 2022.

3. Americanah (2013) – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I read three books by Adichie this year and Half of a Yellow Sun, her novel about the Biafran war, could have just as easily made this list.  But Americanah edged it out, with its humour and wry observations of the lives of two young Nigerians and the lives they make – or struggle to make – in America and England and the draw they feel for their corruption-ridden homeland.  Superb.

2. A Suitable Boy (1993) – Vikram Seth
A joy of a book, which is good because, at almost 1500 pages, I spent a long time reading it.  The central story of Lata Mehra and her suitable – and unsuitable – suitors is full of Austen-esque delights; her mother could challenge Mrs Bennet with all her flutterings, but is happily made of sterner stuff when action is needed.  Lata’s romantic storyline is contrasted with the far darker one of Maan, a relation by marriage, who finds himself entangled in the heady politics of post-partition India, as well as a passionate romance and shocking crime. Judicious editing could have made this even better but I adored the massive cast of well-rounded characters, the detailed sense of time and place, and the absorbing human dramas, large and small.

1. The Great Fire (2003) – Shirley Hazzard
This artful book – Literature with a decidedly uppercase L – is so gracefully written and so thoughtfully constructed that I found it hard to read anything after it for a long time.  It tells the story of Aldred Leith, a war veteran in his early thirties, who is now writing about his experiences of travelling through China after the end of the war.  Billeted in Japan with an awful Australian officer, Leith forms a friendship with the officer’s teenage children and soon – to his discomfort – falls in love with the daughter, Helen.  This sounds very simplistic and tawdry but it is a book about people learning to live – again, in Leith’s case, or for the first time, in Helen’s – in a new world and after much loss.  The writing is extraordinarily beautiful and the story both thoughtful and compassionate.  It’s a novel that needs to be read slowly, with attention and emotion, and I’m glad I was able to give it both.

badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

We made it!  2021 is almost at an end and, I think we can all agree, good riddance.  I am seeing out the final days of this year very, very quietly.  I’m off work (hurrah) but between the explosion in Omicron cases and the icy cold snap we’re experiencing here, spending lots of time at home reading seems like the best plan.

Cordelia Underwood, or the Marvelous Beginnings of the Moosepath League by Van Reid – I revisited Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust books recently and this comic novel, set in late 19th Century Maine, sounded delightful: When the young, beautiful, redheaded Cordelia Underwood inherits a parcel of land from her seafaring uncle, it sets in motion a chain of events that leads to the unearthing of a family secret two centuries old. Cordelia soon crosses paths with Mister Tobias Walton and finds herself aided in her quest by the warmhearted gentleman, who has never heard of an adventure he isn’t eager to join. Together with his hapless trio of friends, the Moosepath League, they embark on an entertaining and audacious adventure.

Eternal Boy by Matthew Dennison – a well-reviewed biography of Kenneth Grahame.

The Republic of Love by Carol Shields – I needed prompting from Book Lust to finally pick up this CanLit classic.

Mornings on Horseback by David McCullough – Another Book Lust find, this is a biography of Teddy Roosevelt, which is focused on his youth.

The Whispers of War by Julia Kelly – Kelly’s The Last Garden in England pulled me out of a reading slump earlier this year so I’m looking forward to this WWII-era story of three friends.

150 Glimpses of the Beatles by Craig Brown – I haven’t watched Get Back yet but picked this up to whet my appetite for all things Beatles-related.

What did you pick up this week?