Friday, August 2, 2019

Apparently My Brain Thinks Size Doesn't Matter

I have a bit of a bad habit, when buying things online, of not paying attention to measurements. Height. Weight. Quantity. I have no good excuse - I feel like there's something slightly wrong with my processing ability on computer screens, so I feel like I'm reading everything over and over but somehow I still manage to miss things, but I have no proof of this. Maybe I'm just careless. It's usually not a huge problem. I ordered a ceramic house and a little vase from artist friends online and both were surprisingly, adorably tiny when they arrived. No problem, they were still lovely.

I had a doors and windows calendar that I really liked last year, so I ordered the new version this year. Turns out it was, um, not full-sized. Eve killed herself laughing at my tiny calendar. The day squares were a little smaller, but I still made it work. It doesn't match my picture in size like the other one did, but oh well.

Near the end of the school year, I was exhausted. I was still recovering from a winter of sickness and pain, working in a hot library with years of yuck oozing out of the old carpets was making me feel somewhat unwell, and we were all crawling to the finish line. Matt was away for a few days and instead of going out for groceries and dog food, I indulged in grocery delivery for only the second time ever and ordered dog food from Amazon, although I usually support our neighbourhood independent-owned pet store. I ordered Lucy's regular food and a bag of the oral care stuff, which is her regular food but in giant pellets which are harder to chew so good for her teeth, and which she for some reason thinks is a fantastic treat even though, like I said, still her regular food. The oral care stuff seemed a little expensive, but Matt had only recently discovered it so I didn't know what it should cost, and we only give her a couple of pieces a day, so I thought maybe that's why it was more expensive.

The package was delivered and Eve opened it in the dining room and yelled for me to come look, again killing herself laughing.

So. Oops.

"We only give her four pieces a day!" Eve said. On the bright side, we won't run out of food before we run out of dog. And when my lovely neighbour needs to borrow dog food for her chocolate Lab, I have the perfect solution.

I'd like to say that I learned my lesson, at least for a while.

But later that week, I realized we were out of envelopes.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019


Our cleaner is upstairs vacuuming. Eve is working on a history summative on the couch, and Lucy is lying on the back of the couch growling because of the cleaner. I just shushed her and she gave me this look that says "SORRY for caring about your SAFETY".

A couple of weeks ago I helped with the book fair at my Wednesday school - this would be my twelfth or fourteenth or somewhere around there. At one point there was a lineup of students waiting to pay and as I was getting out a poster for one I said in conversation with the V.P. "do you know how many times I've said 'the posters are five dollars each' in my book fair career?" A little girl in the line said very seriously "HOW MANY?"

I walked around Dow's Lake looking at tulips with a couple of friends on Friday, then walked around the mall for three hours with Eve on Sunday and walked Lucy when we got home and could still walk on Monday, so I think I'm pretty close to back to normal. This doesn't mean my feet are pain free, but I can walk without limping or being in agony, which is a win at this point. One of those frustrating wins that is just getting back to baseline rather than making any advances. Well, that's not true, it's an advance that came after a regression. Now I'm confused, but overall I'm counting it as a win.

My keyboard is disgusting but I'm resisting the urge to clean it without turning off my computer, because I did that once and accidentally changed the keyboard to Swahili or possibly some alien language, and had to hook up a whole other keyboard for a while until it went back to normal. But once I turn my computer off it takes forever to start up again, and my keyboard is really disgusting. Okay hold on, folks, we're doing this.

Hello? Okay. Whew.

Last Friday we were planning to leave for Toronto in the afternoon. Matt came home at lunch and picked up Eve from school on the way. I came down when I was almost ready and he asked what time I wanted to leave. I said "I don't know, whenever we're ready". He said "one-thirty?" I said "whatever, we're driving, it doesn't have to be on the hour or the half hour. Have you even packed?" He said "Well I can go pack in ten minutes." I said "so go pack! What the hell, can you not get ready without a deadline?" and then it dawned on us "oh my god, you can't get ready without a deadline, can you?" When you spend your life on an itinerary that includes frequent air travel, apparently "when we're ready" doesn't really cut it.

I discovered a really good bagged chopped salad with sesame dressing (I have come to the end of the fantasy that I am going to buy greens and ingredients and make my own salads). I ate it for dinner, and I packed it for lunch, and I thought it was going to change my life. I was going to eat it every day, with protein, and lose a million pounds, and feel amazing, and the salad people would hire me to make a commercial and sell their amazing salad.

None of that happened. I bought it two more times. The first time was great. The second time I suddenly found even the thought of it completely revolting.

Cleaning lady is gone. Lucy is looking very smug because she thinks she made her leave. 

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Invitation to My Small Pity Party

This winter has been really difficult - mainly physically instead of mentally, which I guess is kind of a nice change? Just after my fibroid surgery I was offered a surgery leave at a school that was a longer commute, and I accepted it just before I got the worst flu of my life. We were supposed to go to Florida for March Break to visit my mother-in-law and her husband at their summer house. I ordered Matt and Eve to go without me and said I'd be fine.

Narrator: She was not fine.

In retrospect, this was not the smartest. My parents are nearby, and my mom sent over chicken soup. But she sent it with my dad, who, being a lot like me, assumed I wanted him to come in, leave the soup on the counter, and leave without checking on me. He was right. I did want that. But I was so delirious with fever that I thought I was doing inventory in a really cool warehouse for most of one day, and too weak to lift my phone at one point, so it probably wasn't a great idea. My sister, when she heard, was not impressed.

It's okay. I survived. Matt and Eve got upgraded to first class because, I don't know, they clearly missed me so much, and Eve felt terribly guilty (not too guilty to eat her warmed-up cashews, fortunately). But just as I was barely recovered, we started five week-ends of travel, to Elmira to see Angus and watch baseball, to Vegas for a friend's fiftieth birthday, to my sister's for Easter, and then more Angus and more baseball. This was all great, but didn't give me any down time. At the same time, the bone spur inflammation in my foot got worse so I was hobbling around in pain and off balance for months.

It takes a toll on a girl, ya know? I'm mostly enumerating this because this week I was so happy that the sun was shining and it was book fair week, and I was hanging out with the super-fun and funny principal and V.P. at my Wednesday school who are just so lovely and have the same twisted sense of humour as me, and we were selling books and stupidly-shaped erasers and five-dollar posters to excited kids, and then I'd come home and be weepily exhausted and unable to face cooking dinner, and I couldn't figure out why. Until I figured out why, and Hannah comfortingly confirmed my theory.

I have a great life. I have privilege out the wazoo. I get frustrated with myself when I can't work a stupid part-time job and at least do the bare minimum at home. Turns out my body doesn't care that I need to demonstrate my love and gratitude by cooking and cleaning and that I'd like to demonstrate my love of fitting into my jeans by walking around the park once in a while. I finally found a good chiropodist and my foot is slowly improving thanks to being horrifyingly jackhammered with a taser wand once a week. Sorry, the technical term is "extracorporeal shockwave therapy". I wonder what would happen if they used it intracorporeally - bet it would make a good horror movie. I've been able to properly walk Lucy a couple of times in the past week. Other than that, I guess I just need some rest.

So I've learned my lesson. This week-end we're.... going to Toronto.

Oh well. Store-bought quiche and peanut butter sandwiches for dinner next week.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Thrills and Agony

Yesterday we drove across the border to watch Angus's team play two games at SUNY Canton. He's had a great year academically, but the team has really struggled and his last outing as pitcher was dismal. He's doing better at shaking it off than in the past, and things will reset in the fall, and it's not the end of the world, but he's exhausted and ready to be home and we're ready for that too. We were there for support rather than entertainment or enjoyment (Angus was likely not going to play at all until the next day), and for the prospect of seeing him for five minutes between games and an hour afterwards.

Things went as expected for the first few hours. It was cold. Really cold. Really fucking cold. We sat huddled in our chairs in winter coats with sleeping bags over us and the wind froze our faces. The other team was mean. We're used to loud, good-natured heckling, but this was something else. Later one, one of our players said that he was so pissed because they had been saying rude things about his sisters - it's a thing, apparently, to look at the other team's players' Instagram accounts and chirp about their families. Did you know this was a thing? I feel simultaneously naive and outraged. There's unsportsmanlike and there's next-level assholery. Two of their coaches got tossed, so there's that at least.

We lost the first game 5-3, which is fine. The first game was seven innings, the second was nine, and about halfway through the second I went to the car to warm up for a bit. We hadn't expected Angus to pitch, and then suddenly Matt texted me that Angus was warming up and we were up by one. For a cowardly moment I almost stayed in the car. It's bad enough when he pitches at the beginning of the game and things go badly - this seemed like an unbearable amount of pressure, and watching him at times like this doesn't feel like I'm watching anything related to how hard he's worked at this, or statistics, or physics - it feels like we're in the grip of capricious forces that just want to fuck with us. Part of me just wanted to wait and be told what happened once it was over. (I've heard that extreme circumstances bring out the best in some people. It would seem that I am not one of those people.)

So I trudged my frozen butt out out from the parking lot and up the hill overlooking the diamond. I paced around like an expectant father in a hospital waiting room in the fifties. I swore a lot.

The rest of this story is triumphant and anticlimactic all at once. He pitched the last inning, went three up three down. We won the game (I'm not even sure what the score was). He got the save. We were dazed and jubilant. The other parents were sweet and gracious (especially the ones whose sons were pitchers). We went back to the hotel and I made giant Caesar salads in immense metal trays for dinner just like a real team mom.

On the way home, Eve texted me that she'd made some really great avocado toast, after screwing it up badly (too much salt, not enough lime, something, I don't know) the last couple times, so she was really excited. Nice that it was a banner day for our family all around.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Still February

I'm still feeling kind of shaky. I'm having trouble figuring out if I'm depressed or if this is just life. Feeling extremely mortal, which isn't necessarily bad. I wrote down a quote once that I can't find now (by this I mean I don't feel like going through my university journals and dying of cringe) - oh, looks like it was from the Bible: "Let us know the brevity of life, that we may grow in wisdom". I understand that knowing that life is relatively short is part of what makes it sweet. If we had all the time in the world, then time would mean nothing. On the other hand, if I can't stop thinking about dying, I don't get a whole lot of living done. As with so many things, balance is key. And I'm feeling a little tippy.

It's so hard, understanding the passing of time even though it's so obvious. Now just feels so... NOW-ish, you know? It's so hard to imagine that things will change materially. When I had babies I would tell myself not to panic about them growing fast - tomorrow they would be almost exactly the same as today. Every time we eat too much and feel uncomfortably full we can't believe we'll ever want to eat again. And every January I get such a passion for cleaning and organizing, and I can't understand how I let things get so untidy and out of control because I can't believe that I ever won't feel like that again. And then a few weeks go by and things get a little busier and suddenly I can't be arsed to care about the shit piling up on the dining room table and the downstairs storage closet is close to organized but not quite finished and all that drive and energy is just gone, and here I am again. So much time goes by, and part of it is linear and part of it is circular. That's okay. I've made six trips to Value Village in the past few weeks, and the storage closet really was a disaster. I went through mountains of the kids' old artwork and threw out a bunch and kept the ones I could still remember them making. 

Eve turned sixteen. It seemed normal that Angus could drive at that age, but it seems bizarre to me that she can. I don't know if it's because she's a girl or because she's my youngest or because she's a foot shorter than he was. 

None of this is terribly insightful or new or well-articulated. I'm just trying to force myself to keep writing. But I'm also trying to go to bed earlier instead of sitting at the computer for hours at night, which is what I'm doing now. So I will leave this without an elegant finish and go slog through a few more pages of The Magic Mountain. 

Thursday, February 7, 2019


I feel a little strange. I felt good through most of December, then happy but exhausted through the Christmas holidays, then surprisingly chipper through the first part of January, then anxious about my fibroid surgery, then relieved that it was over. Now I feel like winter depression might be creeping in. This week has been tough. Husband is away and the weather has felt intentionally malicious - more snow and extreme cold, followed by a one-day thaw and a bunch of rain that puddled up everywhere because all the drains are covered with ice, and the promise of quickly freezing again and turning the city into a bone-breaking ice rink. Every day there's been some kind of weather warning. Most mornings have been not quite as bad as anticipated, which is nice but would be nicer if I could stop anxious-ing about it all night. There was one morning I could have slept in, but I worried that Eve would fall and break herself trying to get to the bus, so I got up and drove her. It wasn't that bad out, and then I felt like a kid-coddling loser. A very sleepy kid-coddling loser.

It's funny dealing with the younger classes as the school librarian, because I remember the mixed blessing that was library time as a mother. The kids loved going to the library, but trying to keep track of the library books in our swimming-in-books house and trying to remember to send them back on the right day in my swimming-in-chaos brain was a constant battle. There's one girl in grade one whose book has been overdue since September. I keep sending notices and getting no reply. The replacement cost is only five bucks, but I half think they've chosen to just withdraw from the whole pain-in-the-ass situation and honestly, I get it.

I'm having a bit of a harder time with Angus being gone. I think it's just the time of the year, when everything seems frozen and difficult and sad. I'm cleaning out the basement and I keep finding photographs and drawings and things he wrote, and in one way I remember it all so clearly and in another way it feels like it might have been someone else's life. Then I text him and it's a little bit better. It's weird to realize that whether you treasure every moment or not, they still go by, and you're washed up on the shore of the future.

Also, it's Eve's sixteenth birthday today. And I have a dentist appointment. Onward.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Books Read in 2018: Five Star Books

Five Star Rereads

The Book of Lost Things by John ConnollyHigh in his attic bedroom, twelve-year-old David mourns the death of his mother, with only the books on his shelf for company. But those books have begun to whisper to him in the darkness. Angry and alone, he takes refuge in his imagination and soon finds that reality and fantasy have begun to meld. While his family falls apart around him, David is violently propelled into a world that is a strange reflection of his own -- populated by heroes and monsters and ruled by a faded king who keeps his secrets in a mysterious book, The Book of Lost Things.
Taking readers on a vivid journey through the loss of innocence into adulthood and beyond, New York Times bestselling author John Connolly tells a dark and compelling tale that reminds us of the enduring power of stories in our lives.

I first read this in August 2011, and reread in May of this year. I really like Connolly's regular series - dark mystery/thrillers with a magic realism-style layering of the supernatural - but this is something really wonderful. It reads like an instant classic to me, and I imagine I will reread it many times. The themes are timeless - coming of age, finding one's courage, loss, division, love, death - and the writing voice has the requisite gravitas and beauty to carry them. It's very dark and very sad, but not nihilistic.

Only Forward by Michael Marshall Smith - Michael Marshall Smith’s surreal, groundbreaking, and award-winning debut which resonates with wild humour interlaced with dark recollections of an emotional minefield.
Stark lives in Colour, a neighbourhood whose inhabitants like to be co-ordinated with their surroundings – a neighbourhood where spangly purple trousers are admired by the walls of buildings as you pass them. Close by is Sound, where you mustn’t make any, apart from one designated hour a day when you can scream your lungs raw. Then there’s Red – get off at Fuck Station Zero if you want to see a tactical nuclear battle recreated as a sales demonstration.
Stark has friends in Red, which is just as well because Something is about to happen. And when a Something happens it’s no good chanting ‘Duck and cover’ while cowering in a corner, because a Something is always from the past, Stark’s past, and it won’t go away until you face it full on.

In a kind of twisty way, this book goes well with the previous one, and not because I also read it first in 2011, although that's kind of funny and weird. Before rereading, I remembered I had liked it, but the only thing that stuck in my mind was a futuristic setting, the protagonist climbing over some kind of weird structure, and someone - well, I won't say that, it would be a spoiler. It was fun to read again, and it corresponds with The Book of Lost Things because of Stark's dialogue between his past and future selves, and the incredible power of stories. It's inventive, has some wonky humour, and it's surprising and sad and sort of kind in the way that very good science fiction is. Now that I've read pretty much everything else by this author, I can see signs of this being a first novel, but the voice has only grown more assured, not changed substantially. 

Five Star Fantasy

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart TurtonThe Rules of Blackheath
Evelyn Hardcastle will be murdered at 11:00 p.m. 
There are eight days, and eight witnesses for you to inhabit. 
We will only let you escape once you tell us the name of the killer. 
Understood? Then let's begin...
Evelyn Hardcastle will die. Every day until Aiden Bishop can identify her killer and break the cycle. But every time the day begins again, Aiden wakes up in the body of a different guest. And some of his hosts are more helpful than others...
The most inventive debut of the year twists together a mystery of such unexpected creativity it will leave readers guessing until the very last page.

Holy freaking crap this was cool. It's very rare to find an inventive, intricate plot like this with writing that adds layers of insight and inspiration. The way the narrator deals with being in different hosts and battling their core personalities was one of the most compelling parts of the story. I love the feeling of not knowing what's going on but being able to feel that it's something special, and then not being let down by the culmination. I stayed up way too late finishing this the night before New Year's Eve. It was totally worth it. 
Homecoming by Susan Palwick - Homecoming, by Susan Palwick, is a dark fantasy novelette about  a young girl on the cusp of womanhood who yearns to leave her village and go to sea with her best friend, a boy about her own age, despite natural and supernatural dangers. 

Actually a novelette (99 cents on Kindle!) by one of my favourite authors. Beautiful writing, beautiful story. Do yourself a favour and read it. 

Magonia by Maria Dahvana Headley #1 New York Times bestseller Maria Dahvana Headley’s soaring sky fantasy Magonia is now in paperback!
Since she was a baby, Aza Ray Boyle has suffered from a mysterious lung disease that makes it ever harder for her to breathe, to speak—to live. So when Aza catches a glimpse of a ship in the sky, her family chalks it up to a cruel side effect of her medication. But Aza doesn’t think this is a hallucination. She can hear someone on the ship calling her name.
Only her best friend, Jason, listens. Jason, who’s always been there. Jason, for whom she might have more-than-friendly feelings. But before Aza can consider that thrilling idea, something goes terribly wrong. Aza is lost to our world—and found by another. Magonia.
Above the clouds, in a land of trading ships, Aza is not the weak and dying thing she was. In Magonia, she can breathe for the first time. Better, she has immense power—but as she navigates her new life, she discovers that war between Magonia and Earth is coming. In Aza’s hands lies the fate of the whole of humanity—including the boy who loves her. Where do her loyalties lie?

Probably would have been four stars on a different day, but the worldmaking really blew me away. It was kind of like John Green meets Philip Pullman. I do foresee a love triangle in the sequel, which, bleah, but still. 

The Lie Tree by Frances HardingeFaith Sunderly leads a double life. To most people, she is reliable, dull, trustworthy - a proper young lady who knows her place as inferior to men. But inside, Faith is full of questions and curiosity, and she cannot resist mysteries: an unattended envelope, an unlocked door. She knows secrets no one suspects her of knowing. She knows that her family moved to the close-knit island of Vane because her famous scientist father was fleeing a reputation-destroying scandal. And she knows, when her father is discovered dead shortly thereafter, that he was murdered.
In pursuit of justice and revenge, Faith hunts through her father's possessions and discovers a strange tree. The tree bears fruit only when she whispers a lie to it. The fruit of the tree, when eaten, delivers a hidden truth. The tree might hold the key to her father's murder - or it may lure the murderer directly to Faith herself.

I discovered Hardinge a few years ago and, because the stories seemed such timeless classics, was a bit surprised and wholly delighted to learn that she was still writing. This year (2019) was the first year in the past few that I didn't begin by reading a Hardinge book, only because I didn't have one at hand. This book was my first read on 2018 and was full of marvels and wonders. Much of Hardinge's work features young girls in dire circumstances who go on to discover their considerable powers and do amazing things, with magic thrown into the heady mix. I wish I had been able to read these as a middle-grader or young teenager.

The Anomaly (The Anomaly Files #1) by Michael RutgerNot all secrets are meant to be found.
If Indiana Jones lived in the X-Files era, he might bear at least a passing resemblance to Nolan Moore -- a rogue archaeologist hosting a documentary series derisively dismissed by the "real" experts, but beloved of conspiracy theorists.
Nolan sets out to retrace the steps of an explorer from 1909 who claimed to have discovered a mysterious cavern high up in the ancient rock of the Grand Canyon. And, for once, he may have actually found what he seeks. Then the trip takes a nasty turn, and the cave begins turning against them in mysterious ways.
Nolan's story becomes one of survival against seemingly impossible odds. The only way out is to answer a series of intriguing questions: What is this strange cave? How has it remained hidden for so long? And what secret does it conceal that made its last visitors attempt to seal it forever?

Surprise! Michael Rutger is also Michael Marshall Smith AND Michael Marshall, and no, I don't know why he needs to be ALL of the Michaels, but I'll happily read any and all Michaely stuff he cares to generate. Again, five stars might be stretching it a bit, except that, like The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, I find it a rare and remarkable thing when a tight, terrific plot is clothed with praiseworthy prose, and Smith's or Marshall's or Rutger's voice just really strikes a chord with me - it's how I think I would write if I wrote thrillers, or how I would want to. 

Five Star Mystery

Snap by Belinda Bauer - On a stifling summer's day, eleven-year-old Jack and his two sisters sit in their broken-down car, waiting for their mother to come back and rescue them. Jack's in charge, she said. I won't be long.
But she doesn't come back. She never comes back. And life as the children know it is changed for ever.
Three years later, mum-to-be Catherine wakes to find a knife beside her bed, and a note that says: I could have killed you.
Meanwhile Jack is still in charge - of his sisters, of supporting them all, of making sure nobody knows they're alone in the house, and - quite suddenly - of finding out the truth about what happened to his mother.

But the truth can be a dangerous thing .

A mystery is never just  mystery where Belinda Bauer is concerned, except in the larger sense that life and human relationships and coincidences and fate are a mystery. So this isn't just a great mystery novel, it's a great novel, period. 

Five Star Fiction

Ms. Bixby's Last Day by John David Anderson - Everyone knows there are different kinds of teachers. The good ones. The not-so-good ones. The boring ones, the mean ones, the ones who try too hard. The ones you’ll never remember, and the ones you want to forget. But Ms. Bixby is none of these. She’s the sort of teacher who makes you feel like the indignity of school is worthwhile. Who makes the idea of growing up less terrifying. Who you never want to disappoint. What Ms. Bixby is, is one of a kind.
Topher, Brand, and Steve know this better than anyone. And so when Ms. Bixby unexpectedly announces that she is very sick and won’t be able to finish the school year, they come up with a plan. Through the three very different stories they tell, we begin to understand just what Ms. Bixby means to Topher, Brand, and Steve—and what they are willing to go to such great lengths to tell her.
John David Anderson, the acclaimed author of Sidekicked, returns with a story of three kids, a very special teacher, and one day that none of them will ever forget.

This was incredible. Sad but not depressing, intense but not melodramatic, heartwarming but not cheesy. Will be looking for his other book. 

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf - A spare yet eloquent, bittersweet yet inspiring story of a man and a woman who, in advanced age, come together to wrestle with the events of their lives and their hopes for the imminent future.
In the familiar setting of Holt, Colorado, home to all of Kent Haruf's inimitable fiction, Addie Moore pays an unexpected visit to a neighbor, Louis Waters. Her husband died years ago, as did his wife, and in such a small town they naturally have known of each other for decades; in fact, Addie was quite fond of Louis's wife. His daughter lives hours away in Colorado Springs, her son even farther away in Grand Junction, and Addie and Louis have long been living alone in houses now empty of family, the nights so terribly lonely, especially with no one to talk with. 
Their brave adventures - their pleasures and their difficulties - are hugely involving and truly resonant, making Our Souls at Night the perfect final installment to this beloved writer's enduring contribution to American literature.

Someone recommended this to me just with the title, so I had no idea what to expect. It was so lovely - quiet and simple, and yet plunging right to the heart of human grief and loss and yearning for connection. 

A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell - A Reunion of Ghosts is the shared confessional of three sisters who have decided to kill themselves at the end of the 20th century, honoring the dark legacy that has haunted their extraordinary family for decades
How do three sisters write a single suicide note? 
In the waning days of 1999, the Alter sisters—Lady, Vee, and Delph—finalize their plans to end their lives. Their reasons are not theirs alone; they are the last in a long line of Alters who have killed themselves, beginning with their great-grandmother, the wife of a Jewish Nobel Prize-winning chemist who developed the first poison gas used in World War I and the lethal agent used in Third Reich gas chambers. The chemist himself, their son Richard, and Richard’s children all followed suit.
The childless sisters also define themselves by their own bad luck. Lady, the oldest, never really resumed living after her divorce. Vee is facing cancer’s return. And Delph, the youngest, is resigned to a spinster’s life of stifled dreams. But despite their pain they love each other fiercely, and share a darkly brilliant sense of humor.
As they gather in the ancestral Upper West Side apartment to close the circle of the Alter curse, an epic story about four generations of one family—inspired in part by the troubled life of German-Jewish Fritz Haber, Nobel Prize winner and inventor of chlorine gas—unfolds. A Reunion of Ghosts is a tale of fate and blood, sin and absolution; partly a memoir of sisters unified by a singular burden, partly an unflinching eulogy of those who have gone before, and above all a profound commentary on the events of the 20th century.

This won't be for everyone. It reminded me of All My Puny Sorrows, and I know my book club was pretty sharply divided over that one. My family (my parents and sister and me, and my husband and kids and me) has a habit of dealing with serious subjects with twisted humour, so books that deal with suicide and dark family legacies and still manage to be hilarious are right up my alley. There was also a major Baader Meinhof phenomenon going on soon after I read it, in which I stared at Collette for a full thirty seconds when she started talking about the chemist who developed the poison gas used in the gas chambers and I couldn't figure out why I knew exactly what she was referring to, and everyone thought I was having a stroke. 

An Ocean of Minutes by Thea LimAmerica is in the grip of a deadly flu pandemic. When Frank catches the virus, his girlfriend Polly will do whatever it takes to save him, even if it means risking everything. She agrees to a radical plan—time travel has been invented in the future to thwart the virus. If she signs up for a one-way-trip into the future to work as a bonded labourer, the company will pay for the life-saving treatment Frank needs. Polly promises to meet Frank again in Galveston, Texas, where she will arrive in twelve years.
But when Polly is re-routed an extra five years into the future, Frank is nowhere to be found. Alone in a changed and divided America, with no status and no money, Polly must navigate a new life and find a way to locate Frank, to discover if he is alive, and if their love has endured.

I usually like my time travel stories to be a little more Hollywood-ish, and I'd been having trouble maintaining focus on straight fiction lately, so I thought this might be a tough read for me, but I loved this so much. I usually have trouble reading on vacation, but I devoured most of this in Mexico and then finished it on the plane even though my glasses were not the best for reading and it was extremely awkward. I can't even articulate why it seemed so perfect to me - it may just have been the right book at the right time. It was a beautiful love story and a clear-eyed examination of what can happen to a beautiful love story under the intrusions of pitiless circumstances. Every word seemed perfect for its purpose, and the story was so plausible and sad and vivid. I was outraged that it didn't win the Giller Prize, which was ridiculous because I hadn't read any of the other books that were in the running. Still. Loved it. Gave it to three people for Christmas.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Books Read in 2018: Four Star Horror, Non-Fiction and Fiction

Four Star Horror

Best Horror of the Year Volume 10 edited by Ellen Datlow - “Datlow’s The Best Horror of the Year series is one of the best investments you can make in short fiction. The current volume is no exception.” ? Adventures Fantastic
For more than three decades, Ellen Datlow has been at the center of horror. Bringing you the most frightening and terrifying stories, Datlow always has her finger on the pulse of what horror readers crave. Now, with the tenth volume of the series, Datlow is back again to bring you the stories that will keep you up at night.
Encompassed in the pages of The Best Horror of the Year have been such illustrious writers as:
Neil Gaiman Kim Stanley Robinson Stephen King Linda Nagata Laird Barron Margo Lanagan And many others 
With each passing year, science, technology, and the march of time shine light into the craggy corners of the universe, making the fears of an earlier generation seem quaint. But this light creates its own shadows. The Best Horror of the Year chronicles these shifting shadows. It is a catalog of terror, fear, and unpleasantness as articulated by today’s most challenging and exciting writers.

Favourites - Dark Warm Heart by Rich Larson and Lost in the Dark by John Langan, both of whom I've read before and never been disappointed by (sorry for that tortured sentence, friends, it is the penultimate post and both I and my thesaurus grow weary). I'm going to link to this guy's review on Goodreads, because it aroused both amusement, admiration and envy when I read it. 

The Year's Best Dark Fantasy and Horror 2017 edited by Paula Guran - The darkness creeps upon us and we shudder, or it suddenly startles and we scream. There need be no monsters for us to be terrified in the dark, but if there are, they are just as often human and as supernatural. Join us in this outstanding annual exploration of the year's best dark fiction that includes stories of quiet fear, the utterly fantastic, the weirdly surreal, atmospheric noir, mysterious hauntings, seductive nightmares, and frighteningly plausible futures. Featuring tales from masterful authors and talented new writers sure to make you reconsider walking in the shadows alone...

My first impression upon reading this collection is that the editor did a fantastic job finding stories and a crap job putting them in effective order. The first three stories ("Seasons of Glass and Iron" by Amal El-Mohtar, "The Future is Blue" by Catherynne M. Valente, and "Grave Goods" by Gemma Files) are among the best I've ever read. Then there was a fairly long row of 'meh' and a few more good ones. But I had admittedly been in a weird reading frame of mind at the time, so it's possible that's an unfair assessment. Regardless, those two stories and a few more are easily worth reading. There seems to be a pretty clear feminist slant in several of the stories and consequently in the collection as a whole - not in a didactic, heavy-handed sense, it comes our very subtly and effectively - which is nice to see (not for anti-feminists, obviously).

Haunted Nights edited by Ellen Datlow - Sixteen never-before-published chilling tales that explore every aspect of our darkest holiday, Halloween, co-edited by Ellen Datlow, one of the most successful and respected genre editors, and Lisa Morton, a leading authority on Halloween. 
In addition to stories about scheming jack-o'-lanterns, vengeful ghosts, otherworldly changelings, disturbingly realistic haunted attractions, masks that cover terrifying faces, murderous urban legends, parties gone bad, cult Halloween movies, and trick or treating in the future, Haunted Nights also offers terrifying and mind-bending explorations of related holidays like All Souls' Day, Dia de los Muertos, and Devil's Night. 

Another anthology. I can tell you that I picked this up in Indigo, although I wasn't planning to buy anything, because it was small and smooth and grey and fit nicely in my hand, and because I will follow Ellen Datlow anywhere, and it was October and this was the Perfect Book for that time. I can't really tell you anything more, because I am really bad at making good notes on anthologies - I would have to stop between stories to make notes and, well, that's probably not ever going to happen, although it would make this little exercise a hell of a lot easier. 

The Magdalena Curse by F.G. Cottam - This title tells the story of a boy doomed by a prophecy and a father who will risk anything to save him. It is an epic confrontation between good and evil by the highly praised author of 'Dark Echo'.

This was an inexpensive Kindle purchase that was then better than I expected. Too many writers think that if their plot is scary they can skimp on character, atmosphere and dialogue. Cottam doesn't do this. I admit I initially thought this took place in the past and had to adjust slightly when I realized it was present day, but the set-up was intriguing and the developing romance felt earned. Miss Hall was a truly chilling villain. Elizabeth Bancroft and her mother could almost have carried the story all on their own. 

The Faceless by Simon Bestwick - Chilling supernatural horror and the police procedural collide in this absorbing tale of contemporary characters sucked into a web of mystery and fear. As local townsfolk in a northern city disappear masked men with sinister links to the past haunt the streets. Unconnected events begin to align as Detective Chief Inspector Renwick realises these mysterious figures have chosen targets and an even bigger plan.
In the Lancashire town of Kempforth, people are vanishing. Mist hangs heavy in the streets, and in those mists move the masked figures the local kids call the Spindly Men. When two year old Roseanne Trevor disappears, Detective Chief Inspector Renwick vows to stop at nothing until she finds her. In Manchester, terrifying visions summon TV psychic Allen Cowell and his sister Vera back to the town they swore they’d left forever. And local historian Anna Mason pieces together a history of cruelty and exploitation almost beyond belief, born out of the horrors of war – while in the decaying corridors and lightless rooms of a long-abandoned hospital, something terrible is waiting for them all. 

Genuinely scary, and ended on a much darker note than I expected.

A God in the Shed by J.F. Dubeau - -Move over True Detective. A rich, gothic story of murder and mystery, A God in The Shed is quite possibly one of the most enthralling novels I've read in the last ten years. Dubeau is a force to be reckoned with.- --Jerry Smith, Fangoria Magazine and 
The village of Saint-Ferdinand has all the trappings of a quiet life: farmhouses stretching from one main street, a small police precinct, a few diners and cafes, and a grocery store. Though if an out-of-towner stopped in, they would notice one unusual thing--a cemetery far too large and much too full for such a small town, lined with the victims of the Saint-Ferdinand Killer, who has eluded police for nearly two decades. It's not until after Inspector Stephen Crowley finally catches the killer that the town discovers even darker forces are at play. 
When a dark spirit reveals itself to Venus McKenzie, one of Saint-Ferdinand's teenage residents, she learns that this creature's power has a long history with her town--and that the serial murders merely scratch the surface of a past burdened by evil secrets.

Well this was something strange and a little different. That said, there are some echoes of Stephen King here, especially in the credible writing of young characters. It's always interesting when horror writing takes on the premise of power or wish-fulfillment and how it can be a corrupting force. The small-town setting is well done, and the plucky heroine's ultimate solution is gratifying.

The Moor by Sam Haysom - 'There's a delightful bit of sleight-of-hand at the heart of the novel that I particularly enjoyed.' – Owen King, co-author of Sleeping Beauties

It begins with a ghost story around a campfire. Teenagers out on a walking trip, trying to act brave in front of each other.
But as the walk gets underway and the boys begin to fall out, odd things start to happen.
Noises in the night. A severed rabbit’s foot outside someone’s tent.
Soon, the boys begin to disappear.
As panic sets in and a storm approaches, the remaining boys must band together to face a darkness not even the local ghost stories could help them predict.

Pretty much a perfect tell-it-around-the-campfire scary story, with the bonus of actually containing a scene where scary stories are told around a campfire. I wasn't sure where it was going, and the gradual reveal was very satisfying. Has all the requisite elements - creepiness, melancholy, nostalgia and surprise.

The Outsider by Stephen King - An unspeakable crime. A confounding investigation. At a time when the King brand has never been stronger, he has delivered one of his most unsettling and compulsively readable stories.
An eleven-year-old boy’s violated corpse is found in a town park. Eyewitnesses and fingerprints point unmistakably to one of Flint City’s most popular citizens. He is Terry Maitland, Little League coach, English teacher, husband, and father of two girls. Detective Ralph Anderson, whose son Maitland once coached, orders a quick and very public arrest. Maitland has an alibi, but Anderson and the district attorney soon add DNA evidence to go with the fingerprints and witnesses. Their case seems ironclad.
As the investigation expands and horrifying answers begin to emerge, King’s propulsive story kicks into high gear, generating strong tension and almost unbearable suspense. Terry Maitland seems like a nice guy, but is he wearing another face? When the answer comes, it will shock you as only Stephen King can.

The best King novel I've read in quite some time. I love that sensation of a deepening dark mystery where both the characters and the readers are utterly at sea, and then the slow, delicious sense of revelation, and this is a perfect example. I love Holly Gibney from the Bill Hodges Trilogy and it was delightful to add in her into the mix here, although once the mystery was all but solved and it was all over but the terrifyingly dangerous capture mission, some of the tension leaked out of the narrative. But this was a really great read.

In the Night Wood by Dale Bailey - In this contemporary fantasy, the grieving biographer of a Victorian fantasist finds himself slipping inexorably into the supernatural world that consumed his subject.
American Charles Hayden came to England to forget the past.
Failed father, failed husband, and failed scholar, Charles hopes to put his life back together with a biography of Caedmon Hollow, the long-dead author of a legendary Victorian children's book, In the Night Wood. But soon after settling into Hollow's remote Yorkshire home, Charles learns that the past isn't dead
In the neighboring village, Charles meets a woman he might have loved, a child who could have been his own lost daughter, and the ghost of a self he thought he'd put behind him.
And in the primeval forest surrounding Caedmon Hollow's ancestral home, an ancient power is stirring. The horned figure of a long-forgotten king haunts Charles Hayden's dreams. And every morning the fringe of darkling trees presses closer.
Soon enough, Charles will venture into the night wood.
Soon enough he'll learn that the darkness under the trees is but a shadow of the darkness that waits inside us all.

I requested this from Netgalley because I have read and enjoyed Bailey's short fiction. I never know how it will go then venturing into novel-length fiction (often the answer is "quite badly"), but this was really good - atmospheric, tightly plotted, emotionally affecting and satisfying. I respect when an author creates a beautiful beginning for a love story and then is realistic enough to admit that, given enough time, the most devoted of lovers will become susceptible to boredom and unfaithfulness. The underpinnings of betrayal, tragedy and the hope of forgiveness give a solid emotional heft to the story, while the folkloric and fantastic elements are woven into a nicely-building, suspenseful story.

What the Hell Did I Just Read (John Dies at the End #3) by David Wong - NYT bestselling author Wong takes readers to a whole new level with his latest dark comic sci-fi thriller, set in the world of John Dies at the End and This Book is Full of Spiders
Dave, John and Amy recount what seems like a fairly straightforward tale of a shape-shifting creature from another dimension that is stealing children and brainwashing their parents, but it eventually becomes clear that someone is lying, and that someone is the narrators. 
The novel you're reading is a cover-up, and the "true" story reveals itself in the cracks of their hilariously convoluted, and sometimes contradictory, narrative.

I read John Dies at the End, the first book in this trilogy, in 2014 and wrote this review. I then discovered there was a sequel, which I called "Good, crazy, profane, hysterical fun with some thoughtful bits thrown in". I then wondered periodically if there would ever be a third book, and finally saw it this year. This is another Shaun of the Dead book, except I'm the one that loved it and doesn't know who to recommend it to. It's apparently a cult sensation, which I'm not usually that into. I kind of want to read the whole trilogy together now, and this March when I'm in Florida again I'm definitely going to watch the movie on American Netflix. It's weird. Really weird, but unlike Marilyn (HI MARILYN) for me it was in a good way. There is inventive swearing, and supernatural shenanigans, and a beautiful friendship. And maybe aliens. 

Four Star Non-Fiction

Not Done Yet: Living Through Breast Cancer by Laurie Kingston - Not Done Yet opens a window on one woman's journey through breast cancer treatment, recovery, recurrence, and beyond. When she found a lump in her breast in December 2005, Laurie Kingston was thirty-eight, with an active life, a family, and a demanding job. A diagnosis of breast cancer was nowhere on her radar screen. But when that diagnosis was confirmed months later, Laurie began writing a blog. She wanted to process her reactions and express what she was feeling. Above all, she wanted to write about her experience in her own way. Spanning a two-year period, the entries are written matter-of-factly, in clear and engaging language. They take the reader on a compelling journey--from first diagnosis and what that meant personally and professionally, to preparing for treatments, learning how to ask questions of hospital caregivers, and coping with the physical hardships of undergoing chemotherapy. When Laurie learned in November 2006 that the cancer had spread to her liver, she was devastated. But she kept on writing--and went from a prognosis of "years not decades" and innumerable tumours, to "spectacular" results and (at last count) six clean scans under her belt. Laurie writes with both humour and compassion about her ups and downs as she comes to grips with this new reality. Not Done Yet will speak to those who are going through the same experience, those who know someone who is, or anyone who has wondered about living joyfully when life has been turned upside down.

This was written by a woman who belongs to the same community of friends - bloggers, Ottawa-dwellers, snarkers - that I do, but I never got to meet her in person. I joined the Book Bingo Facebook group she started two years ago, so I communicated with her online as well as meeting yet more wonderful women, and I will always feel loving and grateful to her for that. This book both gladdened and broke my heart, since she did write so beautifully about living joyfully in spite of devastating odds, and because I so wish the spectacular results had continued indefinitely, and they did not. 

There's a Mystery There: The Primal Vision of Maurice Sendak by Jonathan Cott - An extraordinary, path-breaking, and penetrating book on the life and work and creative inspirations of the great children's book genius Maurice Sendak, who since his death in 2012 has only grown in his stature and recognition as a major American artist, period. 
Polymath and master interviewer Jonathan Cott first interviewed Maurice Sendak in 1976 for Rolling Stone, just at the time when Outside Over There, the concluding and by far the strangest volume of a trilogy that began with Where The Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen, was gestating. Over the course of their wide-ranging and revelatory conversation about his life, work, and the fantasies and obsessions that drove his creative process, they focused on many of the themes and images that would appear in the new book five years later. Drawing on that interview,There's a Mystery There is a profound examination of the inner workings of a complicated genius's torments and inspirations that ranges over the entirety of his work and his formative life experiences, and uses Outside Over There, brilliantly and originally, as the key to understanding just what made this extravagantly talented man tick. To gain multiple perspectives on that intricate and multifaceted book, Cott also turns to four "companion guides": a Freudian analyst, a Jungian analyst, an art historian, and Sendak's great friend and admirer, the playwright Tony Kushner. The book is richly illustrated with examples from Sendak's work and other related images.

I loved the biographical information about Sendak and the interviewer's meetings with him. I wish they had made up more of the book. I often think too little close study is devoted to children's literature, and Sendak's work richly deserved this exhaustive study. I just felt like the interviewer inserted himself too much into the narrative, which among other things led to the increasingly infuriating noticing of the verbs - "I noticed", "I commented", "I observed", "I objected", "I asserted" - his thesaurus must have been a smoldering ruin by the end. I was willing to choke it down for the good stuff, though. 

Four Star Fiction

Something for Everyone by Lisa MooreInternationally celebrated as one of literature’s most gifted stylists, Lisa Moore returns with her third story collection, a soaring chorus of voices, dreams, loves, and lives. Taking us from the Fjord of Eternity to the streets of St. John’s and the swamps of Orlando, these stories show us the timeless, the tragic, and the miraculous hidden in the underbelly of our everyday lives. A missing rock god may have jumped a cruise ship — in the Arctic. A grieving young woman may live next to a serial rapist. A man’s last day on earth replays in the minds of others in a furiously sensual, heartrending fugue. Something for Everyone is Moore at the peak of her prowess — she seems bent on nothing less than rewiring the circuitry of the short story itself.

Okay, "rewiring the circuitry of the short story itself" is laying it on a little thick - if I had to pick someone for that accolade it would probably be Karin Tidbeck - but this was still a delight. I think it was the first story, about a married couple separating, is still with me. It's such a fine line, when a short story is about daily minutiae and collections of details and modern living, between "so what?" and "oh, yes, of course". I can't articulate why these are the latter for me, I can just say that they are. 

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson - After a long and eventful life, Allan Karlsson ends up in a nursing home, believing it to be his last stop. The only problem is that he’s still in good health. A big celebration is in the works for his 100th birthday, but Allan really isn’t interested (and he’d like a bit more control over his alcohol consumption), so he decides to escape. He climbs out the window in his slippers and embarks on a hilarious and entirely unexpected journey. It would be the adventure of a lifetime for anyone else, but Allan has a larger-than-life backstory: he has not only witnessed some of the most important events of the 20th century, but actually played a key role in them. Quirky and utterly unique, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared has charmed readers across the world.

I can't remember exactly what I was expecting, only that I was a bit thrown when I started reading. Once I figured out that it was basically Swedish Forrest Gump, I relaxed and enjoyed the ride. I didn't read it quickly, but I was always happy to pick it up again. I enjoyed the present parts slightly more than the past. While preparing this post, I came across books with titles like "100 Facts about the 100-year-old man who climbed out the window and disappeared that even the CIA doesn't know", which I found intriguing. 

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste NgLydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.
So begins this exquisite novel about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee, and her parents are determined that she will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue. But when Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together is destroyed, tumbling them into chaos. 
A profoundly moving story of family, secrets, and longing, Everything I Never Told You is both a gripping page-turner and a sensitive family portrait, uncovering the ways in which mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and husbands and wives struggle, all their lives, to understand one another.

I reviewed this on the blog, which I seldom do unless a book really, really strikes me. Ng is a wonderful writer and, from following her on Twitter it appears that she's quite a stellar person as well, which is always nice to find. I haven't read Little Fires Everywhere yet, only because I'm afraid it will eat my heart up too, and I have to be ready for that.  

What My Body Remembers by Agnete FriisFrom New York Times bestselling author Agnete Friis comes the chilling story of a young mother who will do whatever it takes to protect her son. 
Ella Nygaard, 27, has been a ward of the state since she was seven years old, the night her father murdered her mother. She doesn't remember anything about that night or her childhood before it but her body remembers. The PTSD-induced panic attacks she now suffers incapacitate her for hours sometimes days at a time and leave her physically and psychically drained. 
After one particularly bad episode lands Ella in a psych ward, she discovers her son, Alex, has been taken from her by the state and placed with a foster family. Driven by desperation, Ella kidnaps Alex and flees to the seaside town in northern Denmark where she was born. Her grandmother's abandoned house is in grave disrepair, but she can live there for free until she can figure out how to convince social services that despite everything, she is the best parent for her child. 
But being back in the small town forces Ella to confront the demons of her childhood the monsters her memory has tried so hard to obscure. What really happened that night her mother died? Was her grandmother right was Ella's father unjustly convicted? What other secrets were her parents hiding from each other? If Ella can start to remember, maybe her scars will begin to heal or maybe the truth will put her in even greater danger.

I came across this ebook while looking for What The Body Remembers by Shauna Singh Baldwin, and it piqued my interest. It wasn't a traditional mystery - there wasn't any 'shocking final twist', and the protagonist is unlikable and hard to sympathize with. I don't say this as a criticism. There was a lot of really good stuff here, about living in poverty, living with addiction, addiction as self-medication, religion as a tool of abuse, and messed-up family dynamics. Ella isn't likable, but all of her negative traits are completely understandable. Really sad, but really well done.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien“In a single year, my father left us twice. The first time, to end his marriage, and the second, when he took his own life. I was ten years old.”
Master storyteller Madeleine Thien takes us inside an extended family in China, showing us the lives of two successive generations—those who lived through Mao’s Cultural Revolution and their children, who became the students protesting in Tiananmen Square. At the center of this epic story are two young women, Marie and Ai-Ming. Through their relationship Marie strives to piece together the tale of her fractured family in present-day Vancouver, seeking answers in the fragile layers of their collective story. Her quest will unveil how Kai, her enigmatic father, a talented pianist, and Ai-Ming’s father, the shy and brilliant composer, Sparrow, along with the violin prodigy Zhuli were forced to reimagine their artistic and private selves during China’s political campaigns and how their fates reverberate through the years with lasting consequences.
With maturity and sophistication, humor and beauty, Thien has crafted a novel that is at once intimate and grandly political, rooted in the details of life inside China yet transcendent in its universality.

This was a long, dense fiction read when I hadn't tackled one in a while. There was a lot going on, which some of the people in my book club thought detracted from the story, but I didn't feel that way. It was very slow going but ultimately very rewarding, although very, very sad. I loved the passages dealing painstakingly with the intricacies of music and Chinese language characters. the story unfolded vividly in my mind. It was a really good example of Aristotle's catharsis - experiencing viscerally the emotions of pity and fear through drama. 

The Child Finder (Naomi Cottle #1) by Rene DenfeldThree years ago, Madison Culver disappeared when her family was choosing a Christmas tree in Oregon’s Skookum National Forest. She would be eight years old now—if she has survived. Desperate to find their beloved daughter, certain someone took her, the Culvers turn to Naomi, a private investigator with an uncanny talent for locating the lost and missing. Known to the police and a select group of parents as The Child Finder, Naomi is their last hope.
Naomi’s methodical search takes her deep into the icy, mysterious forest in the Pacific Northwest, and into her own fragmented past. She understands children like Madison because once upon a time, she was a lost girl too. 
As Naomi relentlessly pursues and slowly uncovers the truth behind Madison’s disappearance, shards of a dark dream pierce the defenses that have protected her, reminding her of a terrible loss she feels but cannot remember. If she finds Madison, will Naomi ultimately unlock the secrets of her own life?

Denfeld's second novel - I really liked the last one too. Apparently she's also an advocacy worker for sex trafficking victims and death row inmates, which makes her one monumental triple threat, because she's a kick-ass writer. She plumbs topics which are often written about sensationally and in a formulaic manner - in her hands they are dealt with more subtly and in greater depth. The writing is beautiful and poetic but not so much that it obscures the story (always a delicate balance). There were two or three times where I cringed when she veered into traditional thriller-heroine descriptions of Naomi's appearance, but the portrayal of the kidnapper is incredibly nuanced and sensitive. 

Unsheltered by Barbara KingsolverThe New York Times bestselling author of Flight Behavior, The Lacuna, and The Poisonwood Bible and recipient of numerous literary awards—including the National Humanities Medal, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and the Orange Prize—returns with a timely novel that interweaves past and present to explore the human capacity for resiliency and compassion in times of great upheaval.
How could two hardworking people do everything right in life, a woman asks, and end up destitute? Willa Knox and her husband followed all the rules as responsible parents and professionals, and have nothing to show for it but debts and an inherited brick house that is falling apart. The magazine where Willa worked has folded; the college where her husband had tenure has closed. Their dubious shelter is also the only option for a disabled father-in-law and an exasperating, free-spirited daughter. When the family’s one success story, an Ivy-educated son, is uprooted by tragedy he seems likely to join them, with dark complications of his own.
In another time, a troubled husband and public servant asks, How can a man tell the truth, and be reviled for it? A science teacher with a passion for honest investigation, Thatcher Greenwood finds himself under siege: his employer forbids him to speak of the exciting work just published by Charles Darwin. His young bride and social-climbing mother-in-law bristle at the risk of scandal, and dismiss his worries that their elegant house is unsound. In a village ostensibly founded as a benevolent Utopia, Thatcher wants only to honor his duties, but his friendships with a woman scientist and a renegade newspaper editor threaten to draw him into a vendetta with the town’s powerful men.
Unsheltered is the compulsively readable story of two families, in two centuries, who live at the corner of Sixth and Plum in Vineland, New Jersey, navigating what seems to be the end of the world as they know it. With history as their tantalizing canvas, these characters paint a startlingly relevant portrait of life in precarious times when the foundations of the past have failed to prepare us for the future.

This is another one where I feel like I should defend how much I liked it. I can't, really. Barbara Kingsolver writes these long, sprawling stories that I can't help liking even when they do absolutely veer into the didactic and heavy-handed. This work dovetails with a lot of very timely concerns, often not subtly. I just really loved the story - both stories, actually. I loved the contrasts and likenesses between the two families living years apart in the same house. I loved the exploration of what home and shelter actually means. I loved that the daughter was named Antigone and called Tig. And then there's the science teacher from the past and an early example of people who cling to fake news to the point of violence. It really worked for me. I can't promise it will for you.

Black Dance by Nancy HustonA rowdy reel of a novel that spans a hundred years and one family’s far flung roots by the internationally acclaimed author of Fault Lines.
Screenwriter Milo Noirlac is dying. As he lies in his hospital bed, voices from his past and present—real and imagined—come to him in the dark, each taking on the rhythm of his favorite Brazilian fight-dance, the capoeira. Seated next to him, Milo’s partner, bumptious director Paul Schwartz, coaxes Milo through his life story; from the abuse he suffered as a foster child, to his lost heritage, his beloved grandfather’s priceless library. As Milo narrates, his story becomes the pair’s final screenplay, the movie that will be their masterpiece.
With Milo’s imagination in full flight, several generations of Noirlac ancestors —voices in French and English, German and Dutch, Cree and Gaelic—come to life. There’s Neil Kerrigan his Irish grandfather, classmate of “Jimmy” Joyce, would-be poet and aspiring activist in the fight against British occupation, crushed by his exile in Quebec; Awinita, Milo’s biological mother, an Indian teen prostitute; Eugénio, a Brazilian street child whom Milo finds and fosters; and Marie-Thérèse, Milo’s tough-as-nails aunt. As each voice cascades through Milo’s memory, a fragment of family, and world, history falls into place.
Already a critically-acclaimed bestseller in France, Nancy Huston’s Black Dance is a rich portrait of one man’s life and death; a swirling, sensual dance of a novel, from an exceptional and rare literary voice.

Reading other reviews of this book, it strikes me as a particularly good example of how the same book comes across so differently to different readers. As I find myself saying quite often, it's not that I disagree with any of the criticisms I see - too many viewpoints, elements that reoccur sporadically, skipping across cultures at a breakneck pace - it's just that they rather delighted me. Nancy Huston was born in western Canada but lived most of her adult life in Europe, and I always find that this sensibility comes across vividly in her books. I felt like she captured and rendered Ireland, Quebec and Brazil admirably in this story, as well as a variety of viewpoints both male and female, young and old, privileged and very much not (Awanita's story is profoundly disturbing). I also loved the conceit of the proposed screenplay as dictated by Milo's lover by his bedside - I felt like I could visualize much of it as I was reading. I played capoeira music on my phone beside me as I was reading, and the beat of the story very much echoes the beat of the music. I really agree that Nancy Huston is a writer quite unlike any other.