‘Nightingale Point’ by Luan Goldie

“One ordinary day. One extraordinary event. Their lives changed forever.”

The people living in the Nightingale Point block of flats began the day in a very ordinary way. By the time the sun set, there had been a terrible tragedy and their lives would never be the same again.

Some authors are masters at creating characters who are described so well that you feel you would recognise them if you met them on the street, yet without using a lot of cumbersome description. Long-listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020, Luan Goldie’s debut novel, like many on the WPF list, is a very readable page turner which touches on themes of race, community, and mental health. The narrative is well crafted and flows easily, drawing the reader in. The people in this novel are low income and marginalised even before their lives are turned upside down, but now they must dig deep to rebound and survive. The author make you feel like you are rooting for them all! Based on real events in the UK (Grenfell Tower) and the Netherlands (Bijlmer).

‘Bolder: Making the Most of our Longer Lives’ by Carl Honoré

“Aging is not lost youth, but a new stage of opportunity and strength.” Betty Friedan

Upbeat, encouraging, and sensible, Carl Honoré, the author of In Praise of Slow, explores the advantages and disadvantages of growing older. And with a few caveats (like good health and opportunity), the tick marks on the positive side are clearly in the majority. Honoré quickly debunks prevalent myths about aging and warns that agism is really the problem. Criticising ‘age silos’, the author argues in favour of mingling with other age groups as much as possible and realising that although age and poorer health may detract from quality of life, older people also often experience a boost of creativity and vigour in their later years. Experience and perspective can actually be as useful as youthful stamina.

The important thing is a good attitude and of course maintaining all of the things that keep us all looking and feeling better–exercise for body and brain, sense of humour, stress avoidance, healthy food and drink, socialising with friends and family, etc. If you are over sixty, when you look in the mirror don’t hope to see someone who looks younger, hope to see someone who looks heathy and at their best. As Anne Lamott said, “we contain all the ages we have ever been.”  Own those wrinkles–each one tells a story and shows where the smiles have been!

Here is the author in a TED talk on this topic. It’s worth a view if you want a 12 minute summary of the main points of the book:

‘The Vanishing Half’ by Brit Bennett

The Vignes sisters, light skinned black twins, will always be identical but their lives take very different turns because of the choices they make. They live in a small southern black community until at a young age, and after a devastating trauma,  the sisters run away together to New Orleans.

Ten years later, one sister, Desiree, lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape, and the other, Stella,  secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. She also has a daughter. With the next generation, the cousins–one black, one white–look nothing alike, yet are inextricably linked.

This story is an exploration of racism and the American history of ‘passing’ which I must admit I knew very little about. The Vanishing Half considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person’s decisions, desires, and expectations, and explores some of the multiple reasons and realms in which people sometimes feel pulled to live as something other than their origins. A unique story of family, relationships, and identity, this would be a great book club read. Not surprisingly, there is an HBO series in the works.

I struggled with my feelings while reading this book. Was the story breaking any kind of anti-racist ground or was it just reinforcing stereotypes? I was reading it right after all of the anti-racist protesting worldwide and watching the series Little Fires Everywhere (performances by Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington enhance the reading of Celeste Ng’s novel). As I was researching, I ran across this enlightening piece by Lila Shapiro. It was profoundly helpful and I found that it articulated exactly what I was feeling conflicted about. For the full article click here:

“In the most famous stories about passing, Bennett points out, the protagonists ultimately face society’s reckoning. But Stella is never found out. Instead, she suffers from something more subtle and enduring — the hollowing out of the self. Bennett was interested in passing because of how it both exposes and strengthens the artifice of race. “On the one hand, if you can perform whiteness, then what does it mean to be white? If you can move between these categories because you decide that you will, what does it actually mean that we have systems that are built on reinforcing those categories?” she asks. ‘On the other hand, these characters who pass usually end up reinforcing the hierarchies that they are potentially destabilizing. The tension within passing stories is between this idea of destabilizing race and then reaffirming race at the same time.'”

 

‘A Trick of the Light’ by Louise Penny (Inspector Gamache, Three Pines Mystery # 7)

“While every artist wakes up believing this is the day his genius will be discovered, every dealer wakes up believing this is the day he’ll discover genius.”

As I get deeper into this series, reading them in order, I can clearly see development in Penny’s writing. It’s getting better and better. The police detectives, the residents of Three Pines, and Gamache himself are pleasantly familiar, but never stagnant or stuck in their ways. There are delicious mysteries surrounding each of them and in every instalment Penny teases out more of their personal journeys in addition to the murder mystery at hand.

The dead body of a woman is discovered in a back garden in Three Pines after a party celebrating Clara Morrow’s first art exhibition. “There is strong shadow where there is much light.” Penny’s beautiful writing is layered with themes of light and dark, things hidden and revealed…or is it just a trick of the light? The images refer to artistic talent in a fickle art world, but also of course, to humanity. Penny has a sense of humour. An important piece of evidence at the crime scene is an AA sobriety chip/disc with both the serenity prayer and a figure of a camel engraved upon it. Why a camel? Well, perhaps if a camel can go for 24 hours without a drink, so can you? And I loved the classic Agatha Christie ending, also deliciously tongue-in-cheek–all of the suspects gathered in the same room during a thunder storm, with the lights threatening to flicker out at any moment, while Gamache reveals the murderer…  🙂

Some people call this a ‘cozy’ mystery series, with little graphic violence or offensiveness, with the exception of a potty mouth senior in the village called Ruth. This quote by Patrick Anderson in Washington Post review says it all, “If you’re looking for a well-written mystery that highlights an amusing village, takes a nasty look at the art world and doesn’t contain any cannibalism, beheadings or sexual perversion, you could do a lot worse than Penny’s ‘A Trick of the Light.'”

‘To the Land of Long Lost Friends’ by Alexander McCall Smith

This is the 20th instalment in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency novels.

Even though it was fun to hang out with Mma Ramotswe and the crew again, my feeling is that Sandy Smith has gotten a bit too comfortable coasting along in this series. I still enjoy his ethical mental meanderings, but there’s not a lot of new twists and the characters don’t develop much, with one exception–Charlie is the one to watch in this book. He’s been maturing and in this one he does himself proud!

When I lived in the UK, I went every year to listen to this author speak at my favourite bookstore in London (Daunt Books in Marylebone). He is such an intelligent, warm, hilarious, and engaging speaker. This National Book Festival interview is long, but well worth watching if you have ever enjoyed any of his various books and series.

‘Paris for One and Other Stories’ by Jojo Moyes

A charming novella and a few short stories comprise this collection from a favourite author of mine. For a lighthearted romance, Paris is of course the perfect setting. But Moyes is never saccharine sweet and you can always rely on a few funny and unexpected twists in the story. All of the stories feature troubled relationships and are from the woman’s perspective. Two weeks on from reading this book I remember the novella, but the short stories (which I did enjoy), I now have no memory of anymore–completely forgettable. 🙂

‘The Memory of Old Jack’ by Wendell Berry

This is a slim companion novel to Jayber Crow. I think I liked Jayber Crow a bit better, but The Memory of Old Jack has some really moving reflections on living a life and growing old and some great stories well-told. You get the sense of the generations marching on, each inhabiting the same section of land, the land itself like a character in the novel. Another of his books I would like to read eventually is Hannah Coulter. Might as well hang out in Port William a little longer, although it is not a series, some characters do pop up in other books.

What I enjoy about Wendell Berry is his poetic prose and his mastery at describing the nuance in relationship. His fiction combines wisdom with the earthiness of America’s rural past. A quote from New York Times Book Review says it best:  “Few novelists treat both their characters and their readers with the kind of respect that Wendell Berry displays.”

‘The War I Finally Won’ by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley


(Age 9+)
This sequel to The War that Saved My Life, seamlessly continues the story of Ada and Jamie and Susan, suffering the shortages, constraints, and dangers of the war. After the frightful abuse Ada suffered as a child, a war within herself also continues to rage even though she has found a new family. Ada must fight to find out who she is so that she can learn to love and trust again, especially when things get complicated and an unwelcome visitor arrives.

These two YA novels are easy to read but also get at some very adult issues in a gentle manner, a quality that is often captured in a book narrated by a child. The child’s perspective softens the things that adults know to be complex and challenging. The warmth of the author and her love for horses is very evident in the books, as well as in this little youtube promo below. She has also written many other books for children and young adults: click here.

BTW, if you are noticing that I’m defaulting to reading series a lot during this pandemic, you would be correct. This is because it takes less energy to focus on a book when I already know some of the characters and the setting. Older books are easier to access with libraries closed and I am enjoying the sense of accomplishment by catching up. I highly recommend this reading strategy for those of you who are struggling with reading focus during this weird and troubling time in the world. Know that you are not alone–many people I know are ironically reading less, even though they may actually have more time!

‘Lethal White’ by Robert Galbraith

(Cormoran Strike # 4) If you’ve read the first three in this series (The Cuckoo’s Calling, The Silkworm, Career of Evil) it’s definitely worth going on with this brick of a book (650 pages). The books in this series do need to be read in order. Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling) seems to be in the same pattern of writing as Harry Potter–the books keep getting longer as the series goes on. And with this fourth instalment the crime/mystery seems to take a back seat to the relationship between the main detective war veteran Cormoran Strike and his agency partner Robin Ellacott. I enjoyed hanging out with these two again, and Rowling’s writing is good, but I was a little disappointed and found the book overlong. The crime and the reasons for it were tediously complicated and not compelling enough. After the cliffhanger ending of book 3, Robin and Matthew’s relationship continues to be troubled as the detective agency meets with ever more success.

‘The War that Saved My Life’ by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley


Age 9+

A disabled girl and her brother are evacuated from London to the English countryside during World War II. Nine-year-old Ada has never left her one-room flat. Her mother is too humiliated by Ada’s twisted foot to let her outside. So when her little brother Jamie is shipped out of London to escape the war, Ada doesn’t waste a minute—she sneaks out to join him.

This award winning Young Adult novel is a moving story of triumph against all the odds. Although it is set in WW 2 and deals with child abuse, it is a beautiful historical fiction about love, struggle, loss, belonging, courage, and new beginnings. It is unsentimental, suspenseful, and written in a simple style that is easy to read, yet will appeal to children and adults alike. It made me think of books by one of my favourite authors, Kate DiCamillo, who has a similar style and also writes books for children without ever talking down to them.

For those struggling to focus on reading in this pandemic, cross-over books like this (which are classified YA but are compelling for adults too) are a perfect choice. And there is a sequel called The War I Finally Won.