‘Akin’ by Emma Donoghue

Eighty-year old Noah is about to embark on a trip to his birthplace Nice to discover some things about his past, especially about how his family was affected by the war. But he ends up having to pack more baggage than he bargained for. Just before he leaves on the trip to France, Noah is contacted by a social worker who thinks he is the only living relative who can take custody of an 11 year old grand-nephew he has never met, and save him from foster care. Michael needs a guardian for a time until his mother is released from jail. With no options for postponing Michael’s arrival or postponing his trip, Noah decides to take Michael along to Nice, and the adventure begins! Noah is a retired chemistry professor, who has never had children and has lost his wife and Michael is a cocky but vulnerable preteen who has been raised in poor circumstances and has already sustained significant loss in his young life.

Part historical fiction and part comedy, this odd couple set out on a journey which is funny, poignant, and albeit a bit slow, very gently entertaining. The two manage to help each other and irritate each other in oh so many ways, but together they pursue the mystery of what happened to Noah’s mother during the war and forge an unlikely companionship. The story is in no way sentimental or twee, it has a real feel, and in Donoghue’s capable hands is fresh and original.

Donoghue likes to draw from her own experience in her writing, in this case the inspiration for the book came from a couple of years she spent living in Nice with her French speaking partner and their children. Donoghue says she likes to get material for her novels from her children, as she did with Room when her child was 5. Now she has teens and it feels like she took every example of how tweens can be annoying and put them into Michael. 🙂 Although he does redeem himself on more than one occasion, and Noah continually reminds himself that Michael is a good kid, and just needs to be given a chance, considering his upbringing. On the trip they discover that life is full of risk in any generation and every era is marked by love and loss. Here’s a link to a more comprehensive Guardian review: click here.

 

‘Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know’ by Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell has written many books that pose fascinating questions (Blink, Outliers, Tipping Point, David & Goliath). He researches answers to certain questions and comes up with some surprising conclusions. Some find his books too anecdotal and not scientific enough, while others think his writing is quite approachable and instructive. Either way, it’s usually quite interesting! These are some of the questions in this one: How did Fidel Castro fool the CIA for a generation? Why did Neville Chamberlain think he could trust Adolf Hitler? Why are campus sexual assaults on the rise? Do television sitcoms teach us something about the way we relate to each other that isn’t true?

What do these questions all have in common? The tools we use to make sense of people we don’t know are perhaps not as reliable as we think. We default to trust and truth and generally believe what people say, perhaps more than we should. Gladwell narrates the audio version of the book himself and when he revisits the arrest of Sandra Bland, the deceptions of Bernie Madoff, the trial of Amanda Knox, and the suicide of Sylvia Plath, you hear directly from many of the players in these real-life tragedies. Just be warned that some of Gladwell’s dramatic descriptions relating to sexual violence and suicide might be disturbing or triggering for some.

‘Crow Lake’ by Mary Lawson

What a beautiful family saga to sink into about four children suddenly orphaned, and drawn together by loss and love. The harsh realities of living in a remote and tiny farming community in Northern Ontario are the backdrop to this situation. The town is full of warmth and help and compassion for this family but the children are fiercely independent. Young Kate, the narrator of the story, worships her elder brother Matt, whose passionate interest in the natural world consoles and inspires her. The oldest brother Luke was a bored and sullen teenager but is transformed after the tragedy, turning from the family problem into the family solution. As an adult Kate struggles with a feeling of estrangement from her siblings, which she doesn’t quite understand and is borne of misunderstandings and resentments she didn’t even realise were there. Although this is a character driven novel, there is also a thrumming plot that moves the story steadily forward in effortless prose.

This was a reread, which is unusual for me, but I have to lead a book club meeting on it and I had read it so long ago (pre-log and pre-blog), that I decided to delve into it again and I’m so glad I did. I plan to also reread The Other Side of the Bridge. Lawson’s book Road Ends I read more recently, and was reviewed on this blog: click here.

I will repeat what I said in that review about the author: Lawson’s strength is in her ability to convey the nuance in complex family relationship using a very easy, economical writing style. Emotion is conveyed but it is never cloying. She makes me care about these people. I can relate to them. I long to understand them, I hurt for them, I cheer for them, I fear for them, and in the end I have a hard time letting them go.

‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead’ by Olga Tokarczuk (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones)

Just the title alone of this one is worth the price of admission! Bonus points for you if you know where the quote comes from…ok, I’ll save you the trouble of looking it up. It’s from the English poet and printmaker William Blake, a book called “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” which is a series of texts written in imitation of biblical prophecy but expressing Blake’s own intensely personal revolutionary beliefs.

Translated from Polish, Blake features prominently in this novel which is basically a weird philosophical genre defying literary whodunit. It also includes some dark feminist comedy and mini-essays on vegetarianism. It won the Nobel Prize in Literature (2018) and was shortlisted for the 2019 International Booker Prize. It’s a bit of a quirky read, probably not for everyone, but I really enjoyed it. The ending has a nice twist and is well executed (pardon the pun) but also made perfect sense upon reflection. That’s all I’m saying.

Janina Duszejko dabbles in astrology and lives in a remote area where she oversees a number of summer homes. She is wonderfully eccentric and self-sufficient but suffers from some (never quite defined) ailments that become quite serious at times. People are named according to their qualities: Bigfoot, Oddball, Dizzy, etc. As always, the Guardian has a wonderful extended review: click here.

I also loved this creative and animated review by a fan which contains no spoilers and is a lovely introduction to the book:

Happy New Year Fellow Travelers!

Reading is time traveling, armchair touring, education, relaxation, curiosity, escape, comfort, imagination…and much much more…fill in whatever describes your reading life.

It’s not a competition, not about how many, what genres, how fast, whether to reread or not, old books, new books, hard copy or audio listening…it’s about reading by yourself or out loud to others, using Libby, buying hard covers, patiently waiting for holds, sharing stories, chewing on board books, hoarding books, weeding books, going to book clubs….there are as many ways to enjoy books as there are readers. And all are unique. One of my favourite things to do is peruse bookshelves in people’s homes. Book collections are diverse and distinct, revealing so much about their owners.

This year we bought a small RV that carries us to places both unfamiliar and familiar. When we are on the road we are at turns surprised, entertained, bored, compelled, confused, engrossed, distracted, intrigued, at peace, amazed by beauty, saddened by decay, happy with brilliant sunshine, or wondering about some looming clouds…a bit like the reading life…it’s a journey and always an adventure!

Thanks for another year of traveling together. Looking forward to seeing you on the trail in 2020!

‘Things You Save in a Fire’ by Katherine Center

This author is a great pick if you are in the mood for an easy romance with some good suspense and decent values thrown in. Romance isn’t my usual genre, but I found it grand for a busy holiday time. The other novel of hers I’ve read called How to Walk Away, was about hope and finding joy in dark circumstances, and this one focuses on forgiveness. It was on the 2019 Goodreads Best Choice Awards List for Romance. There are many lists in different categories for each year on Goodreads, which are really helpful!!

As the only female firefighter in her Texas firehouse, Cassie Hanwell is excellent at dealing with other people’s tragedies. But she never anticipated that her estranged and ailing mother would ask her move to Boston. The tough, old-school Boston firehouse is as different from Cassie’s old job as it could possibly be. Hazing, a lack of funding, and poor facilities mean that the firemen aren’t exactly thrilled to have a “lady” on the crew, even one as competent and smart as Cassie. Only the infatuation-inspiring rookie doesn’t seem to mind having Cassie around. Her old captain gave her some advice: don’t date firefighters. Will she jeopardise her place in a career where she’s worked so hard to be taken seriously?

‘The Family Upstairs’ by Lisa Jewell

Soon after her twenty-fifth birthday, Libby Jones returns home from work to find the letter she’s been waiting for her entire life. She rips it open with one driving thought: I am finally going to know who I am. She soon learns not only the identity of her birth parents, but also that she is the sole inheritor of their abandoned mansion on the banks of the Thames in London’s fashionable Chelsea neighborhood, worth millions.

Everything in Libby’s life is about to change. But what she can’t possibly know is that others have been waiting for this day as well–and she is on a collision course to meet them. Twenty-five years ago, police were called to 16 Cheyne Walk with reports of a baby crying. When they arrived, they found a healthy ten-month-old happily cooing in her crib in the bedroom. Downstairs in the kitchen lay three dead bodies, all dressed in black, next to a hastily scrawled note. And the four other children reported to live at Cheyne Walk were gone. There are dark secrets in this house that will slowly be revealed.

Lisa Jewell is a great go-to for a creepy domestic thriller–a mindless, absorbing page turner that offers just the right amount of creepy and evil. This is her latest but it wasn’t her best. I did like the premise and the first half, then it fizzled. I found it a bit hard to keep track of the characters, there were not enough twists and turns, and the ending was weak.