6

Making Elitist Memories

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

In the last few years there have been a number of books flooding the market about happiness and how to increase yours. One of the niche markets within the happiness market is the one looking at how Scandinavians live and stay so happy. I’ve definitely read my fair share of these books – I’m game to find out how I can increase my personal happiness!

(Note: these books are not geared towards folks who are struggling with their mental health due to medical conditions like clinical depression.)

making memories.jpeg

The Art of Making Memories: How to Create and Remember Happy Moments by Meik Wiking is another one of these books. But while the ones before focus on ways to make your life happier, this one looks at what you can do to ensure that you remember those happy moments better. Wiking is also the happiness genius behind The Little Book of Hygge and The Little Book of Lykke. He mans the World Happiness Institute in Copenhagen and spends his life looking at how people experience happiness.

This book is his effort at showing readers what they can do to actually remember those simple happy memories. He’s not talking about the big life changing happy moments like getting married, graduating, or meeting your baby for the first time. He’s talking about the every day happy moments, a walk with family when the light is just right, a great meal shared with friends, reading a bedtime story with your freshly bathed kid. He talks about the senses that are connected with memory and what you can do to engage those when you make the memory so that you can trigger that sense to remember the moment – choosing a specific scent to wear on your wedding day so that whenever you wear it later, it reminds you of that day; going on a memory walk where you choose a route in a neighbourhood that hits locations that have meaning for you; write in a notebook on your happiest days capturing how you felt, what you smelled, what you wore etc.

It was an interesting look at how memory functions and how you can exploit those functions to better capture those moments of perfect contentment.

But at times this book felt a little elitist and out of reach. Talking about changing your annual sailing vacation destination from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean isn’t something that most of us can do to change the way we remember our experiences (the idea being that novelty captures memory better). Writing about your time on Hornby Island off the coast of British Columbia while you work on your book seems kind of accessible for those of us who live in the general vicinity (if we’re willing to pay the exorbitant BC Ferries rate) but it’s a pretty rareified experience for most.

It’s also not a super in-depth look at memory. As far as I could make out, it was based on one massive survey rather than years and years of work. Other professionals’ work was summarized but it was mostly very surface level.

Still, it was an incredibly gorgeous book. Every page is full colour, there are beautiful photographs and punchy illustrations that make the reading a memorable experience. It’s a bit like reading a TED Talk which means it’s very readable.

It just felt a little out of reach at times.

1

A romance novel with a good rep: Bringing Down the Duke

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

Does it seem like romance novels are having a bit of a Moment?

It feels like for ages and ages romance novels got a bad rep. People read them in secret, not wanting to be outed for their deeply shameful reading taste. Romance novels were buried in dark library corners, tucked away in bookstores where shoppers furtively perused, pretending to be on their way to more educational subject matter.

But now! We have so many options! Ones with plucky heroines and feminist undertones.

I am here for it.

One that I read recently got me from the very first page: Bringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore.

bringingdowntheduke

Annabelle Archer wants to go to Oxford. But it’s 1879 and almost no women go to Oxford and she’s the poor relation of a miserly curate who isn’t keen to let her go and lose an employee he doesn’t have to pay. Still,, she manages to get a kind of scholarship but it means she needs to work for the suffrage movement, convincing ‘men of influence’ to support the cause.

Without quite realizing who he is, Annabelle marches up to the Duke of Montgomery, the man who happens to run the landscape of British politics. A less likely supporter she couldn’t have imagined. When Annabelle winds up at his estate for a party, gets sick and has to convalesce, their wits begin to battle for their causes. And it’s pretty hot.

I didn’t know what to expect from this book but it was a complete and total delight. It had me laughing, it had me swooning, I loved every second. Evie Dunmore has done her research – not only was it a great romance, but I learned a bit about the earlier suffrage movement (Annabelle and her friends are agitating for a change to the laws that would see a woman sign her property and wealth over to her husband on marriage – one cannot have the vote if one does not own property) and Oxford! Part of what takes this book up a notch is that historical context and sense of place.

Bringing Down the Duke is the first in an anticipated trilogy (A League of Extraordinary Women) and I already can’t wait for the second book. Annabelle’s friends float in and out of this narrative and I’m excited to get to know them better in the next book.

My only regret is that I’ll have to wait a whole year for it!

4

A memoir of love

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

Every once in a while you’re lucky enough to read a book that changes the way you see the world. Amanda Jette Knox’s Love Lives Here: A Story of Thriving in a Transgender Family is that kind of book for me.

loveliveshere

Love Lives Here is a kind of family memoir, as Knox recounts the kind of childhood and adolescence she had, of meeting her spouse when she was still a teenager, of the obstacles they faced as a young married couple with a small child. How when their second child was 11, they emailed their parents to tell them that she was a girl and that she hoped they would still love her. How Knox and her spouse went into their daughter’s room and held her and the next day started the work of becoming her champions, learning everything they needed to be effective and respectful. And how a few years after that, her spouse, someone who seemed to live under a perpetual cloud, who would get quiet or snappish or seem distant from the rest of the family, told Amanda that they were also transgender. Which is when Knox had to work through her own feelings about her sexuality and whether she still wanted to be married to a woman.

Admittedly this is an oversimplification of the book. As I was reading it, I realized that I had actually read part of this story before. A couple of years ago, I came across the Buzzfeed story of Amanda’s wife’s first day at work as a trans woman. Zoe had been coming out to family and friends slowly but hadn’t at work yet. On her first day, her co-workers threw her a party to welcome her. It was an uplifting story that showed how small gestures can make a big impact.

Love Lives Here tells so much more of the story. And what I was struck with the most about this book is the love that is on every single page. The first time I started crying reading this book was on page three. PAGE THREE. That really set the tone for the rest of the experience. I cried A LOT while reading this. But almost never were they sad tears. I cried as Knox describes her daughter blossoming, finally happy to be recognized as the young woman she is. I cried as Knox grapples with her perceived shortcomings, realizing that in order to be the most effective advocate for her child, she needed to confront her own prejudices and blind spots. I cried when Knox celebrates her wife, realizing that her attraction to this person has always been about the feminine energy she carries. I cried when she writes about recommitting to her wife, about how beautiful her wife is in everything she puts on because she’s basically a model.

This family, you guys. They are wonderful. So wonderful that they became foster parents to their daughter’s friend and just multiplied the love in their family that much more. I’m so grateful that the Knox family shared their story. I don’t want to make it seem like this was an easy thing for Amanda or Zoe or their children and friends. There were dark days, friends who walked out of their lives, other parents who were not nice to their child (I just want to emphasize that these adults were sh*tty to a CHILD), ideas of what their family looked like that they had to change. All of it took work and educating themselves and probably therapy. But mostly, it was about love. Love of their child, love for each other.

Everyone should read this book. It will change you, it will move you, it will inspire you. It’s one that I’m going to be putting in the hands of others for a very long time.

3

Great for book clubs: The Farm

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

If you’re in a book club, you know how difficult it can be to find something that people enjoy reading but that also provides a lot to discuss! It’s fine if not everyone enjoyed the book but that can also mean that people don’t have a lot to say about said book.

I feel confident that Joanne Ramos’ The Farm will make for enjoyable reading for most AND provide amazing content to discuss.

From Goodreads:

Nestled in the Hudson Valley is a sumptuous retreat boasting every amenity: organic meals, private fitness trainers, daily massages—and all of it for free. In fact, you get paid big money—more than you’ve ever dreamed of—to spend a few seasons in this luxurious locale. The catch? For nine months, you belong to the Farm. You cannot leave the grounds; your every move is monitored. Your former life will seem a world away as you dedicate yourself to the all-consuming task of producing the perfect baby for your überwealthy clients.

Jane, an immigrant from the Philippines and a struggling single mother, is thrilled to make it through the highly competitive Host selection process at the Farm. But now pregnant, fragile, consumed with worry for her own young daughter’s well-being, Jane grows desperate to reconnect with her life outside. Yet she cannot leave the Farm or she will lose the life-changing fee she’ll receive on delivery—or worse.

the farm

I was really excited to read this book based on the premise. Then I read early reviews of this book talking about it being dystopian and I shied away. I don’t like reading dystopian fiction. I think it freaks me out! I’m glad that I didn’t let that keep me from reading The Farm because it’s not dystopian at all as far as I could tell. It actually reads more like a gossipy, soapy read. And I mean that as a compliment! It reminded me of Crazy Rich Asians or Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win or Sarong Party Girls.

Part of what made this book really work for me was that Asian women were the center of their own story. And it was written by an Asian American woman who knows these women, who is these women in some cases. That makes a massive difference.

Jane is a young Filipina woman who is living with her older cousin, trying to find ways to make money to look after her new baby on her own. When she finds The Farm, it seems like a good short term way to make her dreams come true. Mae is the brains behind The Farm, an ambitious Asian-American women planning her wedding while making power moves in her career. She knows she has to find certain kind of women to act as surrogates to be able to attract the kinds of clients she knows will take the business to the next level. And Reagan is the idealistic White woman who is at loose ends in her own life, who doesn’t want to take her father’s money, is struggling with her mom’s dementia diagnosis and wants to do something meaningful with her life.

The juxtaposition of the lives of these three women help to make The Farm a layered and nuanced novel about women. Ramos manages to tackle racism, sexism, the 1%, control over one’s body, female friendship, and family dynamics in an almost casual way. I was blown away by how easy Ramos made it look to write a book this captivating and noteworthy.

I will say that the ending was a bit of a letdown. I wasn’t wild about the redemption offered to one character and how another doesn’t seem to have any meaningful character development. The things that happen in Jane’s life happen TO her as if she is a passive passenger in her own life. But the rest of the novel was so good, so enjoyable to read that it didn’t bother me as much as it could have.

There’s still some time before summer is officially over and I think The Farm would make a great companion for the final days of the season.

2

Peak storytelling: The Nickel Boys

The first thing that struck me about Colson Whitehead’s new novel, The Nickel Boys, was the beautiful simplicity of the cover. A large red square with a white border and two young Black men standing at the edge of the red – it is ART.

The second thing that struck me about this book was that it was released in July when it’s likely to be a heavy hitter come awards season. It is surprising to me that a book with this much publishing heft behind it wasn’t held for October.

Lucky for us that we get to read this so much sooner.

You have to be ready for this book though. It will destroy you.

The Nickel Boys is based on the real-life reform school in Florida that operated for 111 years, devastating the lives of thousands of children.

the nickel boys

Elwood Curtis is college-bound. Living with his grandmother in the Black enclave of Frenchtown in segregated Tallahassee, Elwood has big dreams for himself. Listening to the speeches of Dr Martin Luther King, he takes the idea that he is as good as anyone else to heart. One bad decision, an innocent mistake, and he is sentenced to time at the Nickel Academy, a reform school that will provide the intellectual and moral training their delinquent charges lack.

In reality, the ‘school’ is a chamber of horrors that sexually and physically abuses the children in its care (I cannot stress enough that the students were CHILDREN). Elwood figures if he keeps his head down and ‘does his time’, he can get out of there and move on with his life relatively quickly. But seeing only the good in the world is next to impossible in a place like the Nickel Academy and alongside his friend Turner, Elwood has to make some difficult decisions to survive.

Colson Whitehead is a master storyteller at the peak of his craft. Every page, every paragraph, every word has been chosen to cause maximum damage to his reader. Whitehead spares none of us with this story. The abuse depicted is so casual, you almost miss it! You almost miss heinous descriptions of abuse because Whitehead wants you to understand the everyday reality faced by these kids. It was just a part of their day-to-day! I think that by doing it this way, he makes The Nickel Boys palatable to a wider audience. You can’t dismiss this one as too graphic to read. And this story needs to be read, it’s important.

The Nickel Boys is a marvel of storytelling from beginning to end. When I got to end, when I realized how all the pieces fit together to form a DEVASTATING conclusion, I sobbed. Straight up sobbed. It’s the kind of book that knocked the breath right out of me.

I can see this book as a movie or a mini-series. It has HBO or Oscar-bait written all over it should that happen. It’s the story from a dark chapter in American history, told by one of America’s best story-tellers. If you haven’t read it already, I cannot stress enough that you need to.

Thanks to Penguin Random House of Canada for providing me with an ARC of this book in exchange for honest reviews.

4

Review: Star-Crossed

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

We are smack dab in the middle of summer and I hope you have found some solid summer reading picks for your beach bags!

Or for cramming in your bag to sneak in a park near your office, whatever works for you this time of year. I’m definitely not getting my reading done near a body of water but I am using naptimes to sit quietly on the front porch (deck? Balcony? I’m never sure) and read outside.

One of the books that I have loved this summer is Minnie Darke’s Star-Crossed.

From Goodreads:

When childhood sweethearts Justine (Sagittarius and serious skeptic) and Nick (Aquarius and true believer) bump into each other as adults, a life-changing love affair seems inevitable. To Justine, anyway. Especially when she learns Nick is an astrological devotee, whose decisions are guided by the stars, and more specifically, by the horoscopes in his favorite magazine. The same magazine Justine happens to write for. As Nick continues to not fall headlong in love with her, Justine decides to take Nick’s horoscope, and Fate itself, into her own hands. But, of course, Nick is not the only Aquarius making important life choices according to what is written in the stars.

star crossed

This was a bubbly, fun, clever, joyful read for me. I am a Pisces and fully buy into astrology (and tarot cards and mediums and anything else that connects us to the other side and/or fate) and this book really allowed me to lean into that. The book is structured around the signs of the zodiac, following Justine and Nick over the course of a full calendar year, starting in Aquarius. I cannot even fathom the level of expertise that Darke possesses when it comes to the stars!

While we follow Justine and Nick as their paths cross and Justine decides to help out fate a little, we also get glimpses into the lives of other horoscope readers, making decisions based on Justine’s ‘predictions.’ If you’re a Capricorn, you probably think the entire premise of this book is ridiculous. But I guarantee that the Libras and Cancers reading this feel like Star-Crossed is speaking to them. This book made me want to go out and learn everything about astrology! And I’m already that person that goes “oh my god are you a ____?”

I’m loving that romantic comedy is having a bit of a revival in books. Star-Crossed is absolutely a part of the movement and I thoroughly enjoyed every page. I’m honestly thinking about giving this one a re-read at some point.

5

More than just another thriller: A Good Enough Mother

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

You know how sometimes a book is marketed a certain way and then you read it and you come away going “huh, that’s not what I thought it would be”?

That’s what happened for me with A Good Enough Mother by Bev Thomas.

From Goodreads:

good enough

Ruth Hartland is a psychotherapist with years of experience. But professional skill is no guard against private grief. The mother of grown twins, she is haunted by the fact that her beautiful, difficult, fragile son Tom, a boy who never “fit in,” disappeared a year and a half earlier. She cannot give up hope of finding him, but feels she is living a kind of half-life, waiting for him to return.

Enter a new patient, Dan–unstable and traumatized–who looks exactly like her missing son. She is determined to help him, but soon, her own complicated feelings, about how she has failed her own boy, cloud her professional judgement. And before long, the unthinkable becomes a shattering reality….

Paula Hawkins (whose marketing team is definitely Patient Zero for the whole ‘Girl’ phenomenon) blurbs the book. Everything about it screams psychological thriller. Maybe a touch of domestic noir. I thought I was in for something like The Woman in the Window, maybe something like The Widow by Fiona Barton.

Instead, A Good Enough Mother is more a meditation on loss, on motherhood, on the ways that women make room for children and a career, on the thousand ways that that works and doesn’t work. Ruth loses her son and spends her days going over all the different ways that she could go back and undo that loss. She shoulders the blame from a lifetime of being the one in her marriage to try and make room for both her family and her career.

I liked the thriller subplot to this one – I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what Dan’s deal was and that plot’s ending was pretty devastating. But I thought the book’s strength was that it was so much more than a thriller and I wish that it had been marketed as more than just that book that will keep you up at night racing through pages.

I suspect that A Good Enough Mother will be passed over by a lot of readers who think they have already read this book many times over and that’s a shame. It deserves better.