Monthly Archives: January 2015

Call the Midwife, by Jennifer Worth

callthemidwifeLike many readers, I came to Jennifer Worth’s memoir via the fabulous TV series based upon it. I’m happy to report that the book is as engaging and interesting as the series. It’s interesting to see how incidents described in the memoir were used as inspiration for episodes of the TV show, but there are added layers of spiritual depth to the story of a secular young nurse who goes to live among an order of nuns who work as midwives in a poverty-stricken neighbourhood in London’s East End. The reader gets a vivid sense of the work involved in midwifery, the conditions in that place and time, and most important, the love and commitment this diverse group of women brought to their work. It’s well worth a read — and don’t miss the TV show!

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The Valley of Amazement, by Amy Tan

valleyofamazementThis novel tells the story of Violet, a girl raised in Shanghai in the early 20th century. Violet’s American mother, Lucretia, runs a high-class courtesan house; Violet has never met her father, and is devastated to find out that he is Chinese and she is of mixed race. Violet’s life journey is full of unexpected twists and turns, leading the reader through various strata of Chinese life in the first decades of the last century, including the intricate and intimate world of the courtesan houses (which, yes, are brothels — but so much more, as it’s not simply a matter of paying for sex but of engaging in elaborate courtship rituals which are all part of the game). More than three-quarters of the way through the book, the narrator breaks from Violet’s first-person narration to bring us another narrator — Violet’s mother Lucretia, whose store goes back to the US in the 1890s as we learn what brought her to Shanghai in the first place.

There’s no shortage of eventful plot twists here, and Violet is herself an engaging character. Despite this, the story occasionally dragged for me — it took me quite awhile to get caught up in the story, and I thought there were many places where there was too much “telling” — lots of events synopsized in narrative rather than vivid scenes (though the scenes, when they do occur, are vivid and well drawn). There is a wealth of well-rendered historical and cultural detail here (and some graphic scenes — after all, much of the story does take place among courtesans, so be prepared for that if you read it!) I’m by no means sorry I read it; it was an interesting journey, but I sometimes wished it had been a little more fast-paced.

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Filed under Fiction -- historical

The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street, by Susan Jane Gilman

icecreamqueenLike so many readers, I have loved Susan Jane Gilman’s non-fiction, and I was every bit as thrilled, if not more so, with her first novel. This is exactly the kind of historical fiction I love to read — a story that plunges you into the world of the past, bringing the reader to a very specific time and place and letting it all unfold through the eyes of an unforgettable character.  That character, Lillian Dunkle, narrates the novel when she’s in her seventies, an American icon under fire, but her story stretches back to the early years of the twentieth century when she was born with a different name in a different country.

Lillian — or Malka, as she was when her family came to America in 1913 — lived through the most hardscrabble New York Jewish immigrant experience imaginable, until a freak accident set her life on a different path. That path included a different immigrant community — Italian Catholics who took her in and raised her as almost, but not quite, one of their own. From them, she learns the secrets of making Italian ices and gelato, and as young Lillian’s turbulent, eventful life unfolds, so does the history of ice cream — and the history of America, with which ice cream travels hand in hand.

Lillian is not always a likable narrator. By the time the novel opens, she has enjoyed decades of fame and fortune with her beloved husband Bert as the inventor, owner and public face of Dunkle’s Ice Cream. But in her seventies she is widowed, drinking too much, compulsively shopping, indicted for tax evasion and under attack. As she narrates her story in first person, Lillian is by no means always admirable, but she is a character I was able to completely inhabit and see the world through her eyes. This was the first book I finished reading in 2015 and I recommend it very highly to lovers of historical fiction.

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Best Books of 2014

Some years I do something fancy like make a year-end book review video or do some kind of quiz where you can win free books if you guess my top ten book list. Last year I did both. This year … meh, I’m not so creative. It’s been a good year for reading, though. My top ten list was hard to construct, because there were eight books that were definite, gotta-make-the-list favourites, and then another six or so, any of which could have taken those last two Top Ten spots. As always, the ordering is a bit arbitrary, though I do feel pretty solid about the #1 book.

I read and reviewed 77 books this year, which is a little on the low side for me. I put this down to the fact that I actually read more than 77 — I was a judge for a local literary contest which involved reading every work of fiction published in Newfoundland in 2012 and 2013, and out of those, I mostly only posted reviews of the ones I really loved. I figured trashing the ones I didn’t like as much would be an abuse of my judgely position, and in some cases, once I got halfway through a book and knew it wasn’t going onto my shortlist, I skimmed the last half.

Interestingly, even though I really loved some of the books I read for that contest, none of them made my Top Ten of the Year list, though one book by a local author (published later than the cutoff for this contest) is definitely on there.

My 77 books broke down to 57 fiction and 20 non-fiction. 54 books were written by women and 23 by men. Those proportions are a little more skewed than usual; I usually read a little more non-fiction and a few more books by men than I did this year.

My Top Ten list contains three books by Canadian writers, two by British writers, and five by American writers. I suspect if I went back and checked, that would be representative of the books I read as a whole, if you discount the skew caused by contest judging.

I didn’t do a specific count on e-books versus paper but I do know that the VAST majority — probably about 60 of the 77 books? — were e-books as opposed to traditional paper books.

And now, without further ado … the list!

10. Between Gods, by Alison Pick. As I said, there were a lot of good books that could have gone in this slot, but I picked this one because I usually read a lot of great memoirs, and this year, this was the one memoir that really stood out and lingered with me long after I read it. Read my full review here.

9. Wolf in White Van, by John Darnielle. Out of the many excellent novels that could have grabbed the ninth-place spot, I picked this one because I’ve been thinking about it ever since I read it. A very thought-provoking read from a writer who, until now, has mainly penned unforgettable song lyrics. Read my full review here.

8. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman. I’ve loved Neil Gaiman as a cultural icon for years but this is the first book of his that I can honestly say I was entranced by. A fairytale about childhood, for grownups. Read my full review here.

7. Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell. For me, Fangirl was this year’s The Fault in Our Stars: a smart, funny, articulate, insightful young-adult romance. But with less cancer and more fanfiction. Read my full review here.

6. The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters. Simply fabulous, evocative, powerful historical fiction set in post-WWI London. Read my full review here.

5. We Were Liars, by E. Lockhart. A great, gripping, twisty, gut-wrenching young adult novel. If you start to feel like the narrator might be a little unreliable, remember, you’re the one who opened a book clearly titled We Were Liars. Read my full review here.

4. Fool’s Assassin, by Robin Hobb. Wonderful start to a new trilogy by one of my favourite fantasy authors. Would I rather have beloved characters from the previous trilogies left to grow old in peace, or see them immersed in scary new adventures? Read my full review here.

3. Lila, by Marilynne Robison. Once again, Robinson takes us back to the small-town world she explored so deeply in Gilead and Home, now seen through the eyes of a different character. Wonderfully written and deeply thought-provoking. Read my full review here.

2. Sweetland, by Michael Crummey. Absorbing, powerful, breathtaking — there aren’t enough adjectives to praise Crummey’s masterful epic about the last man on a Newfoundland island abandoned by the modern world. Read my full review here.

1. Frog Music, by Emma Donoghue. I always love Donoghue, but not since Slammerkin has she produced a masterpiece like this madcap journey through the underside of late nineteenth-century San Francisco. This novel, based on accounts of a real-life crime, is the kind of historical fiction that’s as close as you’ll ever get to time travel. Read my full review here.

I would love to know what your favourite books of 2014 were. Share some in the comments!!



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