Book Review: IN THE MIDST OF WINTER by ISABEL ALLENDE

In the Midst of Winter
by Isabel Allende
Simon & Schuster Canada

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The place is Brooklyn, New York during a snowstorm that envelops the city—shutting in everyone.

Richard Bowmaster, a 60-year-old university professor and widow crippled with anxiety, lives in shrouded loneliness in an old brownstone. In his basement apartment lives, Lucia Maraz, a visiting Chilean lecturer who works for Richard. Her openness and sensuality stirs a desire in him. A desire that he doesn’t show or act upon.

Come to shake up their lives is player number three, Evelyn Ortega. She’s a 20-something, fretful undocumented Guatemalan. She crashes into Richard’s car when he ventures into the storm for an emergency vet visit. The car isn’t hers—it belongs to her wealthy, powerful employer and she is scared out of her mind. So, Richard takes her in. He quickly realizes he needs the help of Lucia to understand Evelyn.

Together the three wait out the storm and learn about each other’s past. In true Allende fashion unravels harrowing stories of broken families and societal struggles. And somewhere along the way a twist weaves itself into play… and Allende had me firmly in her grip ‘til the very end.

Rich with vivid language and tangible yearning, this book hit the spot. While it wasn’t my favourite Allende novel, it’s well worth the read. Preferably on a cold, winter day while wrapped in a warm blanket and sipping tea.

Thank you to Simon & Schuster Canada for providing me with an advanced reader’s copy in exchange for an honest book review.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

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BOOK REVIEW: The Wolves of Winter by Tyrell Johnson

I’m a sucker for post-apocalyptic tales with a believable take on a world that’s taken a spin for the worst. The debut novel The Wolves of Winter by Tyrell Johnson accomplished just that, on top of a creating a growing tension that keeps the reader turning the pages.

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You’re dropped in a cold, bleak setting with a handful of characters, 20-something Lynn and her family. The sparse exposition lets you focus on the action—trudging in snow and hunting for game along with our feisty heroine. At times, Lynn seems naïve for a grown woman. Then again, she’s been living isolated in the Yukon for years with her party of five and a pervy neighbor living a few miles down the way. Playing Survivor without electricity, most modern-day comforts or news from the rest of the world is her way of life.

That is, until a secretive, stealthy stranger named Jax shows up. Not much older than Lynn, he’s the strong, silent type: hard to read, hard to trust, full of secrets. Everything changes after his arrival—he threatens their order and possibly their lives. You’ll develop a sense of what’s to come because the author drops hints and snippets of truth along the way, but you’ll probably be surprised where to story leads you.

The Wolves of Winter is a fast read and tons of fun. I recommend you grab a copy when the novel is released in January 2018.

Thank you to Simon & Schuster Canada for providing me with an advanced reader’s copy in exchange for an honest book review.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

BOOK REVIEW: Top 5 reasons to read Artemis by Andy Weir

Artemis-Book-Cover-Andy-WeirAndy Weir’s debut novel, The Martian, was an out-of-this-world hit. Fans loved the plot, the tension, and the humour—but can the author deliver yet another outer space story that’s as fun and successful as the first?

He sure can! I’ve had the joy of reading an advanced copy of his sophomore book Artemis. It hits bookstores on November 14, 2017, and I’ve listed the Top 5 reasons fans of Weir will love it.

 

5.  The setting is a not-so-distant-future Moon city, Artemis. Regardless of the challenges due to lack of air, abrasive moon dust and lethal radiation, Artemis is home to a couple thousand inhabitants and has a thriving tourism industry. This remote place—made up of large, connected domes—feels real, so you can easily imagine where all the action takes place.

4.  Every sci-fi book needs a geeky sidekick to help solve pressing, techie problems. Svaboda fits the bill with his quirky personality. His latest invention alone is sure to make you chuckle.

3.  When compared to Earth, there’s only 1/6 of gravity on the moon. This difference adds an element of fun in various scenes—from travelling in heavy gear to fighting off the bad guys. It also gives new meaning the phrases “kids bouncing off the walls”.

2.  The hero of the story, Jazz Bashara, is as likable as Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon in The Martian film adaptation). She’s a sassy badass full of pluck and clever ideas (some good, some bad). I welcome strong female characters in any sci-fi adventure. And hey, Ransom star Nazneen Contractor would be a dead ringer for Jazz in the Artemis movie. Casting directors take note.

1.  The plot has all the classic elements of a heist, yet has a new twist. Who doesn’t like a fast-paced sci-fi caper about misfits with a risky, urgent plan? A plan that feels like mission impossible? Zooming through this book with a smirk on your face—guaranteed.

Thank you to Crown Publishing for providing me with an advanced reader’s copy in exchange for an honest book review.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

BOOK REVIEW: The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman

Rules_of_MagicLast week, Alice Hoffman delighted fans with the release of a prequel to one of her most beloved novels: Practical Magic. That’s right. Over twenty years after readers delved into the world of two unruly witch sisters, the author’s new book, The Rules of Magic, gives us a glimpse into the lives of the Owen family members who came before.

Most of the story revolves around the coming of age of Franny, Jet, and Vincent Owen during the 1960s. These two teenage witches and their wizard brother navigate rough waters as they discover their magical powers and develop intimate relationships. It’s a difficult time for them as the family curse dictates their fates. Their loves. Their lives.

While the book was fun, I found the pace of the story slow, or somewhat passive. Also, it read like a Young Adult book at times. Perhaps that’s because I young when I read and loved Practical Magic… perhaps I have  grown up and now gravitate to Hoffman’s other fantastic books, like The Museum of Extraordinary Things.

Still, I think most fans of the first book in the series will be delighted with this prequel.

Thank you to Simon & Schuster for providing me with an advanced reader’s copy in exchange for an honest book review.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

THE HISTORY OF BEES: A collapse of epic proportions

The History of BessThe History of Bees shares the stories of three different families, living in three different eras, whose lives are shaped by both the breeding and survival of bees. While Maja Lunde’s gripping novel is aptly titled, it could have been called Collapse.

In a 19th-century scientist’s story, the dream to make a name for oneself and leaving a legacy always seems to be on the brink of collapse. In the second story, an apiarist struggles during the onset of the terrifying Colony Collapse Disorder in 2007. Collapse takes on a darker meaning in the third story—set 80 years in a the future in a dystopian world without bees. In all narratives, the potential collapse of bonds between parent and children, husbands and wives, compels the reader to turn each page to find out what fate awaits them.

While some big twists are predictable early on, other little turns will astonish the reader. A thought-provoking read filled with tension, relatable characters, and an urgent message to protect our bees now and for generations to come.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

*** Thank you to Simon & Schuster Canada for sending me a galley of this novel in exchange for an honest review.***

PROBE INTO MEMORY: Find Me by Laura van den Berg

Find Me CoverFind Me by Laura van den Berg
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, February 2015

“The sickness” hits the Unites States leaving its victims covered in silvery scabs, bereft of their memories, and fated with an unavoidable death. 19-year-old Joy finds herself swept away to an isolated hospital along with others who have been exposed to the fast-spreading disease. Here, Joy becomes intimate with a widower, endeared by orphaned twin boys, and distracted by the mysterious pilgrims who stand vigil outside the hospital.

Unlike other dystopian novels (i.e. Children of Men, World War Z), this story is not rife with action or a rush to find a cure. In fact, most of the scientific elements fizzle away on a back burner. The protagonist has a lot of time on her hands. She gets lost in the entanglements of her memories and her imaginings. Joy’s fears, doubts, and transient lifestyle make her the ideal, unreliable first-person narrator. You feel as vulnerable and as unknowing as Joy.

Van den Berg uses poetic phrases and gorgeous water imagery that lulls you. Her words leave you aimlessly drifting along and waiting for meaning along with Joy. The story can be summed up by one of Joy’s powerful lines:

“I feel like my life is a tent someone has folded up and carried away.”

Being an orphan, Joy never had a permanent home or family life. She drifted from place to place, always finding herself lost—her future a dark blur. The language sets the mood and helps you delve into the psyche of a lonely woman in an unravelling world.

The second part of the book meanders into a new direction, possibly leaving you confused or unsatisfied. Other characters materialize along the way, but never long enough to leave their imprint on you. Like the memories of the afflicted, the relationships Joy forms with others come and go too quickly. The final scene is fitting, but may leave you with more questions than answers.

I recommend this book for readers who appreciate the intricacies of language, but not to those who want a tight plot and a clear resolution at the end of the novel.

My Life in Books

I’ve enjoyed reading other book bloggers’ posts in The Time and Place Book Tag. Bloggers write vignettes explaining the memories and places associated with reading particular books. In Chelsea’s post, she explains, “My life can be told in books, and it is one of the most special things about them.” So friends, here’s my life in books.

The Monster at the End of This Book by Jon StoneGrover

My favorite book as a teeny, bespectacled girl featured Grover from Sesame Street. Although I was quite young, I remember my mother reading the story to me. A growing tension builds as Grover pleads with the reader not to turn the pages. There’s a “scary” monster at the end of the book, after all. My mother would pretend she was terrified of the page-turning, just like Grover, and I would laugh and turn each page defiantly. I still own a worn, cherished copy of the Monster book.

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

OwenMeanyCoverThe first book I read by John Irving was A Prayer for Owen Meany. When I was in high school, I went on my first out-of-town day trip with my boyfriend. We left our tiny town, and we drove nearly two hours to reach a “much bigger” town with double-lane roads, a multi-screen cinema, and a chain bookstore. It rained during the ride. We listening to the single cassette of “Wish I Was Your Lover” over and over. I felt grown-up, so clearly I had to buy an “adult” book to mark the occasion. In the clearance bin at the Coles bookstore, I found a book with an armadillo on its cover. The inside flap revealed it was by the guy who also wrote The World According to Garp. I had seen and loved that weird R-Rated movie and figured this book would be just as strange and as adult-themed as Garp. Little did I know that I’d spend the following weekend tucked in my sister Joe’s basement bedroom (she was attending University at the time) and get lost in this story. I remember reading the ending so vividly. I was sprawled on Joe’s bed. I bawled for what felt like forever. I felt both overwhelmed and uplifted. It was the best thing I had read in all my 17 years. (It might still be the best novel I’ve read in all my 40 years. It’s in a tie at the top of my list with Jane Eyre).

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

MeTalkCoverMy husband Brian gave me this collection of essays to read when we flew off to Prague to (secretly) get hitched. He had introduced me to Sedaris (and to This American Life). We listened to podcasts featuring the humourist reading to live audiences. I must admit I was too excited to read when we left Canada. So, I read the whole book during our return flight. I laughed out loud a few times. I cried a bit, too. These stories will forever be associated with Brian smiling at my side, fluffy white clouds, and my left hand sporting a new, sparkling ring.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J. K. Rowling

HarryPotterPhoenixMy sister, who taught grade 7 for over a decade, introduced me to the Harry Potter series. She lent me the first three books, and I read them over the span of a couple of weeks shortly before the fourth one was published. I couldn’t wait to read the fifth book, but I would have to wait a while for it to get published. Two years later, and a few days before it hit the bookstores, I had a pregnancy scare. I was four months pregnant and was put on strict bedrest for two weeks. This Harry Potter book helped me remain calm and entertained. I remember being thankful it was over 800 pages long. I spent much of my time reading it while sitting on my old plaid couch near the living room picture window. I didn’t lift a finger during this time. I read, read, and read while my baby got stronger. That December, my healthy daughter weighed 8.14 lbs at birth.

The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter

TheWorldBeforeUsCoverI read this gorgeous novel last year. I’d read it early in September during the early morning hours. I was determined to take advantage of the last days of summer by hanging out on the new, cedar deck my husband and father had built together. Reading. Drinking coffee. It was bliss. On one of these mornings, I looked up to see a dozen or more hot air balloons floating above me. I’d forgotten it was The Gatineau Hot Air Balloon Festival that weekend. The balloons often land all over our neighbourhood in parks and farmland. The sky dance was as TheWorldBeforeUsBalloonspectacular as the book. The World Before Us became one of my two favorite reads of 2014 (the other being Sweetland by Michael Crummey).

If you participated in the Place and Time Tag, please share the link with me. I’d love to read your bookish stories. Happy reading!