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A very pleasant read: Women in Sunlight

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

You know how sometimes you are just in need of a solid three star read? Something that doesn’t really need anything from you, it doesn’t stoke strong feelings either way, is just thoroughly pleasant?

That’s kind of what Frances Mayes’ Women in Sunlight was for me. Completely and totally pleasant.

women in sunlight

Kit Raine is an American writer living in a village in Tuscany. Her neighbour is renting out her house for the next year to a group of older American women – after the year, they will have the option to buy. Kit witnesses their arrival and becomes a part of their quest to upend expectations and figure out what the next chapter of their lives look like.

Julia, Camille and Susan meet as they all tour a retirement community, thinking it might be the next logical step. Camille and Susan are widowed, Julia has left her husband and a tragic situation. Instead of signing up for little homes in this community, Susan convinces the other two to follow her and move to Italy. And so these three women move to a small hillside Tuscan town and jumpstart the next phase of their lives: through food, art, gardening and learning to embrace an Italian way of living.

Nothing unpleasant happens in this book – everything bad or tragic has already happened before the story begins. In this way, the story doesn’t really have a huge impetus to move forward. It’s more a meandering through a year in Tuscany, living in a glorious villa, making friends with locals, eating all the greatest food and discovering the delights that Italy has to offer.

At first I wasn’t sure how I felt about this – shouldn’t something happen?

But then I realized, I actually really like these kinds of books, the ones that are just a collection of everyday happenings that together make a life. I really appreciated the representation of mature female friendships – these women don’t compete with each other or tear each other down. They are supportive of the others’ desires and need for space or time to work through what is going on. Each allows the others to live this life on their own terms, working together to create a paradise of their own making.

I mean, this is the dream no? Retire and move to Italy for a delicious and beautiful second act?

If you end up reading Women in Sunlight, for the love of all that is holy make sure that you have good food on hand. You will die if you have to read this book without food. The description of eating and drinking in this book will end you. So consider yourself warned on that score.

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4

Beach Bag Read: Other People’s Houses

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

We’re getting to the time of year where we all start dreaming about uninterrupted reading time in the sunshine, preferably near a body of water.

Which means that we need to start thinking about what titles are going to be included in said time.

I think I have a good one for you today: Abbi Waxman’s Other People’s Houses.

From Goodreads:

As the longtime local carpool mom, Frances Bloom is sometimes an unwilling witness to her neighbors’ private lives. She knows her cousin is hiding her desire for another baby from her spouse, Bill Horton’s wife is mysteriously missing, and now this…

After the shock of seeing Anne Porter in all her extramarital glory, Frances vows to stay in her own lane. But that’s a notion easier said than done when Anne’s husband throws her out a couple of days later. The repercussions of the affair reverberate through the four carpool families–and Frances finds herself navigating a moral minefield that could make or break a marriage.

other people

This is the kind of book that’s all about the things we don’t know about other people’s lives and relationships. Waxman has created a neighbourhood cast of characters that all have things going on that they don’t necessarily share with each other. Nothing bad or nefarious or life-destroying, just things that they aren’t totally comfortable bringing out into the light.

I liked how easy this was to read, how realistic it was about it’s portrayals of relationships without depressing the sh*t out of you. Other People’s Houses admits that life isn’t always what you think it will be but you will come out on the other side of whatever crap it throws at you.

I was charmed by Frances and her neighbourhood, how with all the residents’ foibles they still all pitched in and helped each other out when it was needed. I laughed out loud a few times at the situations that they all got into – not like Lucy and Ethel level shenanigans, more like Mad About You level misunderstandings.

This was a book I devoured in a couple of sittings and I think it would make for entertaining airplane reading, a great companion on a road trip or tucked into a beach bag for a glorious summer day of doing nothing.

My copy is about to be loaned out, potentially for some combination of all three.

9

DNF Chronicles: Two for the price of one

It is RARE for me to not finish books. It’s something that I have always struggled with and only in the last year or two have I made not finishing books a priority of sorts.

Listen, if you are someone that struggles with this, let it go. It is FREEING to stop reading something you’re not enjoying. Do you know how many books exist in the world? There are so many other books you could be reading right now instead of forcing yourself to slog through the one you’re not connected to, the one that you dread returning to.

Life is too short to read books you don’t love.

So what are the books that I didn’t finish recently?

Well, I was really excited about both of them!

the-wife-s-tale-7

The first was Aida Edemariam’s The Wife’s Tale: A Personal History. It’s the story of Edemariam’s grandmother, who lived alongside some incredible history in her native Ethiopia. I was looking forward to reading about the life of this woman who witnessed history happening while also living her life, married to a man twenty years older than her, the birth and death of her children.

This one lost me because of it’s writing style. It felt almost biblical and I don’t know if you’ve ever tried reading the bible for the stories, but it’s a slog. I couldn’t get into the story because I was trying too hard to figure out what was even happening. The narrative also seemed to keep changing from who was telling the story which added a new layer of confusion for this reader.

It didn’t take me long to get frustrated with this one and give it up – maybe 50 pages. And I’m bummed about it because I’ve not read anything about Ethiopia or its history and I was really looking forward to doing that via a woman’s perspective.

macbeth

The next one was Jo Nesbo’s Macbeth. Last year I posted about Hogarth Press’s project that had authors updating Shakespearean classics. I liked Tracy Chevalier’s take on Othello in The New Boy. I have been a fan of Nesbo’s for ages Macbeth felt like a good fit for him!

I tried really hard to like this one. Nearly 200 pages. In Nesbo’s Macbeth, it’s the 1970s in Fife and a couple of sex workers tell Macbeth, commander of the police’s SWAT team, that he will be the Commissioner but he needs to remove those who are in the way. So, influenced by his girlfriend, a casino and brothel owner called Lady, Macbeth seeks to fulfill the ‘prophecy.’

Part of what makes Shakespeare’s Macbeth so good is the mystical element which is weird and clumsy in the 1970s Scottish underworld. And Macbeth, a trained SWAT commander, reallllllly likes to use his knives as his murder weapons of choice which also just felt like a strange choice to me. I had a hard time with lack of women, which I guess is kind of down to the original but Lady was an old sex worker/brothel madam. I guess an effort was made to have her seem like Macbeth’s partner, but it fell flat for this reader.

Aside from Banquo and his son, everyone in this story is horrible. I don’t remember enough of the original to confidently say that that wasn’t the case there too but I feel like there was a desire to see Macbeth win and I didn’t feel that. It makes zero sense for the man hoping to become police commissioner to go on a junkie bender and murder the people who stand in his way. Does it make sense in a Scotland of old? Yes, absolutely. Less so in modern times.

I want to feel bad for not finishing either of these books but then I look around at the 700 books piled up around my house and realize I don’t have time to feel bad!

Thanks to Penguin Random House of Canada for providing me with copies of these books in exchange for honest reviews.

6

Canada Reads: The Boat People

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

It’s that time of year again! Canada’s national book competition, Canada Reads, is kicking off once more!

This year the theme is One Book to Open Your Eyes. The books that will be competing are:

And because I’m still working on becoming a better CanLit reader, I’ve only read one of the books this year: The Boat People by Sharon Bala.
From Goodreads:
When the rusty cargo ship carrying Mahindan and five hundred fellow refugees from Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war reaches Canadian shores, the young father believes he and his six-year-old son can finally begin a new life. Instead, the group is thrown into prison, with government officials and news headlines speculating that hidden among the “boat people” are members of a terrorist organization infamous for their suicide attacks. As suspicion swirls and interrogation mounts, Mahindan fears the desperate actions he took to survive and escape Sri Lanka now jeopardize his and his son’s chances for asylum.
boat people
The Boat People is told from alternating perspectives: Mahindan as he tries to figure out what is happening to him in this new country and worries over his son, who he has been separated from; his lawyer Priya, a second-generation Sri Lankan-Canadian who has never really been a part of Sri Lankan culture and must grapple with her identity and her role in Mahindan’s life; and Grace, the adjudicator, a third generation Japanese-Canadian whose family was interred during the war and stripped of everything they had worked to achieve, who must decide if Mahindan is a threat to the safety of her country, just like people decided her family was all those years ago.
The alternating perspectives provided a lot of layers to this story – Mahindan’s story is told from when he is in Canada but also what happened to him and others in Sri Lanka, that brought him here in the first place. Bala tells the story of Sri Lanka through Mahindan and Priya who learns about what happened to her own family that prompted them to escape to Canada.
But The Boat People can feel heavy handed with it’s message of inclusion and the duty to provide asylum and it’s mostly because of Grace. Grace has been appointed as an adjudicator by a former boss, a minister who is intent on kicking all of these people out of the country because they are probably terrorists. She is terrified of disappointing him and is infected by his xenophobic rhetoric. And as she continues to ignore her own family history, she is doomed to be the reason history is repeated.
There is a lot of complex history about Sri Lanka that Bala has no doubt simplified for her readers. And still I found it really overwhelming. The political history of that country is still something that I do not understand but Bala does do an admirable job of focusing those politics on the people they affected. In this way, Bala focuses on the human toll of political upheaval and forces readers to decide where the line is in offering asylum or shutting the door.
I think that The Boat People can be the kind of book a lot of people should read. It clearly did open my eyes to suffering in a part of the world I wasn’t paying attention to. But I’m not sure that this is the one book that will force the entire country to open their eyes and pay attention.
The competition starts on March 26 – tune in at cbc.ca!
6

The sinister mystery of The French Girl

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

french girl

Ten years ago, on a holiday at a farmhouse in France, the French neighbour went missing on the last night Katie and her friends were there. Now, Tom is telling her that they found Severine’s body in the well at the farmhouse and a french detective would be coming to speak with each of them once more.

In the ten years since that week, Katie has become a lawyer, starting her own legal headhunting business and doesn’t need the stigma of being involved in a murder investigation. Still, everyone from that week is cooperating – Tom, who is coming back to London from Boston, his cousin Seb, Katie’s ex-boyfriend who she hasn’t seen since they broke up right after that week, Caro, still singular-minded, working at her father’s law firm, and Katie’s best friend Lara, a Swedish transplant who has never had any trouble getting the kinds of men she wants. The only one missing is Theo – it was his family’s farm, he knew Severine the best and after whatever happened happened, he signed up for the military and ended up dying over there.

Lexie Elliott’s The French Girl is a different kind of mystery. The mystery happened ten years ago, there are no flashbacks, no clues uncovered by intrepid investigators or curious friends. We stick with Katie as she is haunted by Severine, as she tries to piece together what might have happened all those years ago, while trying to get her business into the black. She reconnects with the group that was there that week and all of them talk about what the French detective has been asking, what he’s been focused on.

The French Girl is kind of sinister because we don’t have anymore idea what happened all those years ago than Katie. There is no evidence, no trail to follow. The entire book is the interactions this group has with each other and the detective. It’s a unique way of telling this kind of story and I really did appreciate it. I enjoyed my time with The French Girl, reading it in glorious late-winter sunshine.

But I’m not sure that this one will excite everyone. It was clever for sure but was it compelling? Not especially. I wasn’t counting the minutes until I could get back to it. It was an easy, no-pressure read that I would have been happy reading on a beach or poolside. I’m not convinced it would have held my attention on a long flight or a commute though.

I liked The French Girl, I will loan it out, and I’m OK with not getting anything more out of it.

8

Taking ‘Buckshaw’ out of the Buckshaw Chronicles

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

Recently, I’ve seen people “confess” to their love of the Flavia de Luce books (fine, the Buckshaw Chronicles). Like reading and liking these books is something to feel guilty about, they are some kind of guilty pleasure.

I’m not about that life, guys. Are Alan Bradley’s delightful mysteries set in the 1950s English countryside gritty or dark or violent? Nope. But that’s kind of their charm. They are much more in the vein of Agatha Christie and I for one appreciate their lighter fare. I’ve spent several years loving Flavia and her penchant for solving crimes, chemistry and finding new ways to torture her older sisters.

So I’m not here to rag on these books. I think they are the kind of books that we probably need these days.

But I think Book #9, The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place, might be the end of the line.

grave

This is the copy I have…

After the shocking end of Book #8 (still not over it), the ever faithful Dogger takes Flavia and her older sisters on a boating trip before they are all off to new lives. As they are making their way up the river, Dogger is just telling Flavia about the wonderful case of the vicar who poisoned three of his parishioners and how they dropped dead right in the front pew, when Flavia literally drags a body from the water. One minute she’s dragging her arm in the water, the next a body is hanging from her hand by its teeth.

Naturally Flavia is delighted and Dogger and the de Luces decamp to the village of the famous poisoning incident. While there, Flavia endeavors to find out not only what happened to the body she dragged from the water but how did the vicar actually go about poisoning his parishioners?

In true Buckshaw Chronicles fashion, Flavia uncovers more than she bargained for and learns ever more about human nature.

If you’re familiar with these books, then you know exactly what you’re getting with The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place. It follows in the footsteps of it’s predecessors. The fact that this one is removed from Buckshaw and Bishop’s Lacey does mean that we lose access to some of the characters that didn’t come along on the trip. But Bradley has given us a whole cast of new characters that ably fill the void. However, if this IS the last one, the series is going out with a whimper, not a bang. And I can’t decide how I feel about that.

grave2

…but THIS version is stunning!

Now that Flavia has made a decision about her future, putting all her skills and training to use in this new pursuit, now that all of the financial issues around Buckshaw have been sorted out, I kind of want to see what direction these books could go in. They really do feel like an homage to Agatha Christie, maybe mixed with The Bletchley Circle and Harriet the Spy. Having freed himself from some of the constraints of the story, I want to see what Bradley comes up with for Flavia.

If you can come to this maybe-final book accepting it for what it is, then I suspect you will enjoy the ride. Flavia is in fine form, finally understanding how humans relate to one another, something that has always eluded her.

Finally, Flavia is all grown up.

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A sexy romp: The Wedding Date

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

I first heard about Jasmine Guillory’s The Wedding Date from Roxane Gay. She was the first to tweet about her enjoyment of this book, which put it on my radar. I kept seeing it after that (one of those cases where awareness suddenly shows you something everywhere) and finally, I got the chance to read it.

wedding date

The premise of The Wedding Date is a simple one. Sexy Drew Nichols is dreading being a groomsman at his ex and best friend’s wedding. The night he checks into his hotel, he ends up getting stuck in an elevator with Alexa Monroe and decides to ask her if she’d be his pretend girlfriend at the rehearsal dinner and the wedding. Uncharacteristically, she says yes.

Their chemistry is insane and what begins as a pretend relationship, turns into something more as they find ways to spend more time with each other. Each are juggling their own baggage, their careers, but can’t deny that there’s something special here. However, because of the way things started, both continue to question whether what they have is actually real or just playing the part. Does Drew do this with lots of women? Is Alexa just a fetish for him?

I really enjoyed this book. It was a fun, sexy romp through California that made me smile. Is this book going to change your life? Probably not. But it’s so fun and right now that’s sometimes all I need from a book.

I appreciated so much about The Wedding Date. I liked that she’s black and he’s white, that they kind of have to address that without that being the focus of the book. I really appreciated that the sex was actually hot and not just cringey and kind of gross. It was empowering in its way.

I also appreciated that Drew and Alexa are fully formed characters. They both have their own baggage (he has maybe not been completely honest about the state of his relationship with the bride, she tends to overthink everything and not allow herself to fully enjoy anything), they are both successful professionals who have their sh*t together, and they have to figure out how a life together might work.

I liked that The Wedding Date didn’t ask very much of me. It’s confident in its ability to be a charming, sexy, fun read. I’ve already loaned this book out and am getting more positive feedback. I think if you go in prepared to accept this book for what it is, you’re going to enjoy the ride.