‘The Testaments’ by Margaret Atwood

Here’s something I never thought I would say: “Just read a really fun page-turner by Margaret Atwood!” 🙂

Sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments is a testament to Atwood and perhaps a swan song of her lifelong career. It is narrated by Aunt Lydia, a character from the previous novel; Agnes, a young woman living in Gilead; and Daisy, a young woman living in Canada. Atwood was asked to write another instalment about the chilling Republic of Gilead and remarkably she did, in her twilight years, while caring for a partner living with dementia who has since passed away. That is remarkable.

Though I must admit to finding some of her earlier works unapproachable and perhaps too literarily lofty for me, this one was something for anyone and everyone to enjoy. I do wonder if some of her die-hard fans will be disappointed. Although the subject matter is as sobering as ever when it comes to Gilead, it has a lighthearted feel to it. The Testaments  has already won an award and I’m sure it is flying off of the shelves this Christmas. Indeed I purchased it for one of my family members, but stealthily flew through it first before wrapping it up! I also really enjoyed the tongue-in-cheek humour, especially around Canada and Canadians. I think Atwood had a lot of fun with this one. Way to go Margaret! As always, the Guardian has the best extended review: click here.

‘I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death’ by Maggie O’Farrell

“The best way out is always through.” Robert Frost

But O’Farrell says, oh well, if you can’t go through you can always go around! 🙂 I’ve read one novel by this author, now I want to read more. There were things in her life that she would clearly have gone around, but had to go through and now they have been revealed.

What a unique memoir. It is so astonishing, so elegant and beautifully described, and yet so terrible all at once.  Somehow she makes these seventeen stories chilling and eloquent at the same time. In the audio version, Daisy Donovan captures and conveys the vulnerability and strength of the author. O’Farrell knows how to tell a story and Donovan knows how to read it. I hesitate giving this five stars, only because some of it may be triggering for those who have experienced similar trauma. People will need to talk about this after reading it, so it’s perfect for book clubs.

We are never closer to life than when we brush up against the possibility of death.  There was the childhood illness that left her bedridden for a year, from which she was not expected to survive. A teenage yearning to escape that nearly ended in disaster. An encounter with a disturbed man on a remote path. Her heartbreaking struggle with fertility and miscarriage. Scary near accidents. And, most terrifying of all, an ongoing, daily struggle to protect her daughter — for whom this book was written — from a condition that leaves her unimaginably vulnerable to life’s myriad dangers. Seventeen discrete encounters with Maggie at different ages, in different locations, reveal a whole life in a series of tense, visceral snapshots. The message is simple. Life is precious.

Here’s an excellent review in the Guardian: “I’ve revealed the secrets I’ve spent my life hiding.”

‘This Tender Land’ by William Kent Krueger

What a wonderful feeling, to be in the hands of a gifted storyteller. Captivating, redemptive, moving…when I started this book I found it instantly compelling and wonderfully paced and it kept a grip on me all the way to the satisfying ending. An ending full of the peace that comes, not from everything working out as planned, but from embracing the journey, wherever the river goes. From the acclaimed author of Ordinary Grace, comes another epic adventure, with the feel of a classic.

The flyfleaf summarizes it best:
“In the summer of 1932, on the banks of Minnesota’s Gilead River, the Lincoln Indian Training School is a pitiless place where Native American children, forcibly separated from their parents, are sent to be educated. Is is also home to Odie O’Bannion, a lively orphan boy whose exploits constantly earn him the superintendent’s wrath. Odie and his brother, Albert, are the only white faces among the hundreds of Native American children at the school.

After committing a terrible crime, Odie and Albert are forced to flee for their lives along with their best friend, Mose, a mute young man of Sioux heritage. Out of pity, they also take with them a brokenhearted little girl named Emmy. Together, they steal away in a canoe, heading for the mighty Mississippi in search of a place to call home.”

This trusted and acclaimed author of Ordinary Grace has done it again–crafted a novel with unforgettable fictional characters set against historical truths in desperate times. Another amazing tale of compassion, courage, self-discovery and hard-won wisdom. But there is a lightness also, a marvellous mystical quality that speaks to the soul.

‘The Ex’ by Alafair Burke

After agreeing to defend her ex-fiancé when he is arrested for a triple homicide, top criminal lawyer, Olivia Randall begins to have doubts as the evidence mounts against him. Twenty years ago she ruined his life. Now she has a chance to save it.

This was a fun and easy to read stand-alone legal/detective crime novel. A good one to snuggle up with on a cold winter’s evening. Nothing remarkable about it, and I had it pretty much figured out early on, but enjoyable all the same. The author teaches criminal law and lives in Manhattan. I’ve heard that her more recent books are twisty and suspenseful and have put them on my TBR list: The Wife and The Better Sister. Funny thing–when I arrived at the gym yesterday a fellow fitness class member had just picked up The Wife from the library. I’d never heard of this author before and now I’m seeing her everywhere. My fitness colleague said she’d group Burke with Joy Fielding, Mary Higgins Clark, and Mary Jane Clark in terms of read-alikes.

‘The Gown’ by Jennifer Robson

Books become very enjoyable when there are lots of points of contact–places we’ve been to, experiences we’ve had, or activities we are familiar with. The Gown is historical fiction about the women who embroidered Queen Elizabeth’s wedding gown. It brilliantly highlights the postwar era in which the wedding took place and points out how in many ways excitement around the wedding was meant to lift the mood of a war weary country. The novel captures that spirit of hope.

For me it was a treat to read because it was about sewing, embroidery, the city of London, the royal family, and immigration to Canada–all points of contact and interest for me. Three women narrate the story that is woven together so well–a seamstress from France, an embroiderer from England, and a granddaughter in Canada blend their voices to move the story forward. This highly readable novel isn’t only about sewing. It’s also about the value of friendship, the intrigue of legacy, and the revelation of family secrets.

This Canadian author also published an article in Time magazine with interesting background information about the real event as well as Norman Hartnell’s Fashion House commissioned to make the gown. Click here.

‘Olive, Again’ by Elizabeth Strout

Olive Kitteridge is one of my all time favourites, so I was excited to read the sequel Olive, Again. And it did not disappoint. In fact, everything I would say about this second book, was said in my previous post about the first book, so you might as well turn back to that now: click here.

Strout is a genius at capturing many varied moments in one novel: holy, ordinary, heartbreaking, endearing, frustrating, joyous, sensual, horrible, humorous, and awkward. I think she writes ‘awkward’ best, I can’t imagine it’s easy to do. The sequel carries on seamlessly from the first book and holds the same tone and form: loosely connected stories about people in Crosby, Maine but what you can count on is that Olive will show up, and it will be intriguing. This book in particular is poignant and real in describing aging Olive, the way she copes, and what she learns about herself. Olive continues to be a strange and enigmatic woman, brutally candid but also refreshingly honest–I can’t get enough of her.

Most public libraries have the four-part HBO miniseries of Olive Kitteridge in DVD format starring Frances McDormand, or I would think it could be streamed online. It’s very true to the book and is a pleasure to watch.

‘The Stationery Shop’ by Marjan Kamali

This is a unique story set in 1953 Tehran against the backdrop of the Iranian Coup. It’s about a young couple in love who are separated on the eve of their marriage, and who are reunited sixty years later, after both have moved on to live independent lives in America. It’s a sweeping romantic tale of thwarted love amidst the chaos of unrest. There’s really not enough information to classify it as historical fiction, although it does give a flavour of that place during that time.

The novel begins very effectively at the end of the story, when Roya and Bahman meet again, begging the question of what happened all those years ago. As the author flashes back, the story slowly unfolds. Why did these young lovers fail to meet up? How did they manage to find each other again so late in life? What was the truth in the tale and what deceptions may have been at play? Despite being a bit tedious and occasionally clichĂ©, I really liked this book. I did feel hugely sorry for one character, and it’s not who you might think.