Category Archives: Four Star

‘They Left Us EVERYTHING’, by Plum Johnson

“…thinking about all the things we’ve inherited, all the carefully saved fragments from another time…each generation preserving them in turn, wanting future generations to know of this long, braided chain of genes, habits, and attitudes that binds us together as a family: our history and stories.” 

This is a memoir about a woman who takes on the task of clearing out her parents’ house after they have passed on. When we die we don’t take anything with us, and everyone else gets to go through what we have left behind! Johnson grew up in this house in Oakville, Ontario, and as she handles objects from the past, she reflects on her life, her relationship with her parents and siblings, and the life her parents had before they moved into this house. She had a disciplined British father, an exuberant Southern mother, and four siblings, all living together in this 23-room house. Johnson has a warmly candid writing style that is at once funny and poignant, but also delves into serious issues of managing loss and grief.

What I didn’t notice about the title when I first came into contact with this book was that the word EVERYTHING in the title is capitalized. Yes, the house was FULL of STUFF and for anyone who has done it, removing it all and making decisions about what to throw and what to keep, is a colossal task that does take one on an emotional journey. I’m glad Johnson shares hers. She also raises some interesting questions about whether it’s better to clear out your own mess before you die, if possible, or if it’s somehow therapeutic for your children to do it. Despite the fact that it can be frustrating if story-less objects are left without the ability to ask questions about them, there is value in reliving the memories and there may even be some surprises!

‘The Alice Network’ by Kate Quinn

In the chaotic aftermath of WW 2, Charlie finds herself unmarried and pregnant, and on the verge of being thrown out by her very proper family. Her mother wants her to go to Switzerland to take care of her Little Problem. Instead Charlie runs away to London where she begins a search for her beloved cousin Rose who has not been heard from since the war. Joining her in the quest, is an unlikely partner. Eve was a spy in WW 1, and though heroic, was also broken in body and spirit. She has her own reasons for being on this quest with Charlie and they are far more sinister. The book alternates between Eve and Charlie’s stories, both riveting, until the stories inevitably converge. It is an enthralling historical fiction that is gripping and features two strong female protagonists. This was a great story about courage and resilience in unbelievably hard times but also had some measures of humour and romance thrown in. I liked that it combined both world wars in the same novel. The espionage aspects reminded me of Code Name Verity which was also a great read. I will be recommending this one widely!

‘Goodnight, Manger’ by Laura Sassi and Jane Chapman

Here is an excellent choice if you are looking for a Christmas picture book for a tiny in your life! One of the most common challenges for parents of new babies is getting them to sleep. This delightful children’s Christmas picture book deals with that theme, giving the classic Christmas story a unique and human twist…I always prefer the familiar Christmas carol to be of this version: “the little Lord Jesus, some crying he makes.” Mary and Joseph are having a difficult time getting baby Jesus to sleep in the busy and noisy stable!

Chapman’s illustrations are done in warm colours and uncommon motifs. I particularly love how the angels are portrayed–men and women in colourful garb. Yes, they are flying around in the air, but they are not white females with wings!

Note: Here’s a great tip I read in a review of this book: put 24 Christmas books in a basket and read one each day for advent until Christmas day!

‘The Secret Scripture’ by Sebastian Barry

Now in her hundredth year, Rose McNulty, once the most beautiful girl in County Sligo, Ireland, has spent a lifetime locked up in a mental asylum for reasons which gradually become clear as she tells her story. She has a secret diary and she is interviewed by Dr. Grene who suspects that she was incarcerated for social reasons rather than medical. Rose was an innocent victim of religious and political hatreds during the Irish civil war. It is a tense novel of survival and an epic story of love and betrayal.

This is a magnificent novel for the serious reader. Barry’s writing is beautifully elegant but also energetic and well crafted, suspenseful and historical. There is a movie made from this book by the same name which came out in 2015 with Vanessa Redgrave. I think because Barry’s poetic prose softened the darkness of the subject matter, I found the movie more difficult to watch and even more emotionally devastating. Oddly, in the book I felt the surprise ending was a bit far-fetched but in the movie it was so movingly perfect, that it made me cry.

‘No and Me’ by Delphine de Vigan

Parisian teenager Lou has an IQ of 160, OCD tendencies, and a mother who has suffered from depression for years. But Lou is about to change her life–and that of her parents–all because of a school project about homeless teens. While doing research, Lou meets No (short for Nolwenn), a teenage girl living on the streets. As their friendship grows, Lou bravely asks her parents if No can live with them, and is astonished when they agree. No’s presence forces Lou’s family to come to terms with a secret tragedy. But can this shaky, newfound family continue to live together when No’s own past comes back to haunt her?

Translated from French, this young adult novel grew on me. It’s definitely a ‘cross-over’ novel, appealing to adults as well as teens. Though it has a bit of a slow start, it has beautiful and important themes about homelessness, adolescence, friendship, and motherlessness. There are only a few characters but that spareness is what makes it great. Most striking is the juxtaposition between the simplicity of the language and the depth of ideas in the novel. There would be a lot to discuss if a book club read this together. It would be a great book for high schools to use in French class (No et Moi)…easy and engaging for teens to read,  but well written and academic enough.

The effects of Lou’s kindness and bravery in inviting No to come and stay is remarkable and has far reaching effects on her family. Along with classmate Lucas, Lou tries to help No build a life away from the streets. However, No’s emotional scars run deep and she pushes Lou’s friendship and trust to the limits. Without revealing the ending, I feel I want to say that I found it sad that No never realized what a huge impact she had on all of the members of Lou’s family, by coming to stay with them. Isn’t it often the case that those who reach out to help are the ones who end up being blessed?

‘The Hummingbird’ by Stephen P. Kiernan

“We live our lives on a whole planet, seeing and learning and going from place to place. But eventually there arrives a time for each of us, when our world becomes smaller: one house, one floor of that house, and near the end, one room, one little room to which our whole gigantic life has been reduced. And when that happens . . . that room becomes sacred. It is the holy, modest place in which we will perform perhaps the hardest task of our life: letting it go.”

This is a story of courage, compassion, and redemption. Deborah Birch, a seasoned hospice nurse has a difficult new patient. And when Nurse Birch is off duty she is not able to get much rest because her husband is suffering from nightmares, anxiety, and rage.

The author weaves together three different threads in this novel: death/dying, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and Pearl Harbour. There are two alternating story lines, one about the Pacific in WW 2, and the other about a hospice care nurse caring for a patient and supporting her husband who just returned from his last deployment.  The author crafts a gentle yet compelling story that is easy to read and beautifully written. I will definitely be reading more by this author who is a graduate of the acclaimed University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop and has won many awards for his writing. His latest novel which came out earlier this year is called The Baker’s Secret which is about D-Day from the French perspective. And another one that looks good is The Curiosity which is a thriller about a man frozen in the Arctic for more than a century, who wakes up in the present day.

Kiernan’s writing has a ‘fresh’ feel to me and I really enjoyed it. The season I read it in was especially poignant for me because my sister was dying and I began reading Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. It was meaningful to view the perspective of navigating the decline of old age that Gawande brings and comforting to experience the compassionate care of the hospice nurse in the novel at the same time. Hospice care is such amazing work and I gained even more respect for it in reading this book.

‘Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat’ by Bee Wilson

“The food we cook is not only an assemblage of ingredients. It is the product of technologies, past and present.”

Food writer Bee Wilson does a really great job of looking at the history of how we cook and eat; it’s a look at kitchen utensils and cooking methods that we now take for granted. The modern kitchen and its contents evolved over time around the cooking practices of their day and were dependent on a number of factors that we are most likely unaware of. With artful sketches by Annabel Lee gracing each chapter, Wilson looks into things like pots and pans, knives, fire, measurement, refrigeration, and things as simple as the humble wooden spoon, the indispensable chopping knife, and the clever vegetable peeler. The history is fascinating and Wilson’s writing style is engaging. She has done her homework and relays the information in an entertaining manner.

This is a great book for anyone who enjoys cooking and is interested in how we as humans have evolved in our domesticity (also makes me think of Bill Bryson’s book At Home). Even though it contains not a single recipe, it does provide inspiration and a new respect for being in the kitchen and cooking even a simple meal.