The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows


This book has had a lot of buzz- perhaps because of its title…which is almost impossible to remember:  The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. The novel tells the story of writer Juliet Ashton, who is something of a minor celebrity in post World War Two.  A chance letter from the British Island of Guernsey changes her life.

The novel consists entirely of letters and cables sent back and forth between various characters: Juliet and her publisher, Sidney; Juliet and her best friend (and Sidney’s sister) Sophie and then Juliet and various members of this oddly named literary society. The second part of the novel finds Juliet on the island meeting with the people who will ultimately change her life.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a simple, pleasant novel- the perfect book to curl up with on a cold winter afternoon, cup of tea in hand. That said, it lacked a certain something. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the book wasn’t finished by the person who started it: Mary Ann Shaffer passed away before the novel’s completion and was finished by her niece Annie Barrows (writer of the children’s series Ivy and Bean).  I felt somehow let down by the novel’s denouement- it felt rushed and one section,  so-called “Detection Notes”, takes the place of the back and forth correspondence between the characters. It felt a bit like a cheat to me, especially as it reveals too much about two characters, thus allowing everything to be tied up in a neat bow.

The most compelling bits of the story, for me, were about the Nazi occupation on Guernsey and I was aching to know more about Elizabeth; she was, by far, the most compelling character.

Still, you could do a lot worse than this book.

The Flying Troutmans by Miriam Toews


When Hattie gets a frantic phone call from her eleven year old niece, Thebes, to “come quick”, Hattie leaves her life in Paris and flies home to Manitoba.

Min was stranded in her bed, hooked on the blue torpedoes and convinced that a million silver cars were closing in on her (I didn’t know what Thebes meant either), Logan was in trouble at school, something about the disturbing stories he was writing, Thebes was pretending to be Min on the phone with his principal, the house was crumbling around them, the black screen door had blown off in the wind, a family of aggressive mice was living behind the piano, the neighbours were pissed off because of hatchets being thrown into their yard at night (again, confusing, something to do with Logan) … basically, things were out of control. And Thebes is only eleven.
Thebes’s mother, Min, is Hattie’s older sister. Theirs is a complicated relationship fraught with sibling rivalry, of course, but also touched by Min’s mental illness. Their parents are almost non-existent in this story: we learn only of their father’s tragic death.  Still, Hattie loves her niece and nephew- even though she hasn’t seen them in quite a while and even if she seems ill-equipped to care for them.

What she decides to do is take them on a road trip to find their father- who has been out of the picture for several years. Hattie remembers him fondly and thinks he’d be the perfect person to care for the kids while their mother recovers in hospital.

What follows is a road trip quite unlike any other as the Troutmans travel first south and then across country to California.

These are damaged people:  fragile and angry and resilient. As they make their way closer to the kids’ Dad, they form a bond built on trust and love. They’re kooky, no question, but they’re most definitely family.

I read Toews’ novel A Complicated Kindness a couple years ago- and really enjoyed it. I liked this even better. It was laugh-out-loud funny and the ending was full of hope and these characters, particularly Thebes, were some of the most enchanting (albeit nutty) people I’ve had the pleasure of spending time with in recent memory.

What Was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn

Catherine O’Flynn’s debut novel, What Was Lost, is as labyrinthine as the tunnels under the Green Oaks Shopping Centre. Ten year old Kate Meany is an amateur detective, raised (until his sudden death) by an older, single father. In the novel’s opening third, we travel with Kate and her stuffed monkey, Mickey, as they conduct stakeouts, deliberate over office stationary for Kate’s fledgling detective agency, and pal around with Adrian, the 22 year old son of the man who runs the store next to Kate’s house.

Flash forward almost 20 years and meet Kurt, a security guard at Green Oaks and Lisa, a manager at ‘Your Music’ a big-box music store in the same mall (and not incidentally, Adrian’s younger sister). One night, while sleepily watching the security moniter, Kurt sees Kate. It’s not possible: Kate disappeared the year she was ten and was never found. Adrian, suspected of wrong-doing, but never charged, disappeared and made no contact with his family except for a mixed tape he sent to Lisa every year on her birthday.

From these tangled threads, O’Flynn weaves an exceptionally good story about missed opportunities, luck, family and secrets. She even throws in a slightly gloomy (but fairly funny) picture of what it’s like to work in retail.

O’Flynn’s real strength is in her characters. Kate Meany is a wholly believable and totally enchanting little girl. Lisa and Kurt are flawed and likable. O’Flynn manages to tell us everything we need to know about a character with a line or two – whole back stories come to life with a few carefully chosen words. Even minor characters spring to glorious life and create a picture of small town-life which is ultimately eroded by progress aka big  impersonal malls.

The story had an extra layer of meaning for me because it took place in the West Midlands of England and I once lived there.  I am pretty sure that Green Oaks is actually Merry Hill, a huge shopping centre on the outskirts of Birmingham.

If I have one niggle about the book, it comes at the end. I didn’t like part 42- it felt extraneous to me, like an unnecessary bow on a beautifully wrapped present. Had O’Flynn quit at the end of part 41, I think this little gem of a novel would have been damn near perfect.

Julie and Julia by Julie Powell

Julie Powell had me at : “we both recognize the genius of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” That revelation comes early on in her book Julie & Julia, a  memoir that builds upon the “Project” she embarked on just before she was about to turn 30. Disheartened with her life as a government drone in New York City, Powell was, as many of us were, looking for meaning in a post 9/11 world. But further to that- she was looking for meaning in her own life. Or at the very least, she was looking for something meaningful to do.

While visiting her parents in her native Texas, Powell confiscates her mother’s copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking (MtAoFC) by Julia Child.

“Do you know Mastering the Art of French Cooking? You must, at least, know of it,” Powell says. “It’s a cultural landmark, for Pete’s sake!”

And from this cookbook…and a conversation with Powell’s long-suffering (and incredibly supportive) husband, Eric, springs the Julie/Julia Project. Powell decides to cook every single recipe from the book and blog about it.

Blogging. Ahh, yes. Curious thing, that. You write and people read and the next thing you know you have a book deal. Or something like that.

Julie & Julia follows Powell’s project from beginning to end- and includes everything from her failures in the kitchen to her friend’s extramarital affairs. It is laugh-out-loud funny and occasionally self-indulgent (but what blog isn’t?). It’s peppered with expletives and bits of strange insight.

So this search for meaning (personal meaning, at least) has been done before. Elizabeth Gilbert (whom Powell thanks in her acknowledgments) did it in a little best-seller called Eat, Pray, Love. I liked Powell’s book better and here’s why…

I could relate to Powell. And, no, it’s not just because of her Buffy-love (although that certainly earned her free points.) Where Gilbert took a year off to spend four months each in three different countries, Powell could only afford the occasional day of playing hooky from her crap job while she cooked her way to enlightenment. Her house was unkept, she drank too-much and swore even more. She didn’t set off on the Project for fame and glory- she wanted to find an essential piece of herself that she thought was missing.

And she does…one recipe at a time.

The Box Children by Sharon Wyse

Lou Ann Campbell is an extremely sympathetic character. She’s the eleven-year-old narrator of Sharon Wyse’s debut novel The Box Children.

“What you are reading is my diary,” Lou Ann writes. Lou Ann’s  diary is a secret she keeps from her Mother, Father and older brother, Will. She lives with her family on a farm in rural Texas and it is her diary that acts as her confessor, confidante,  and friend.

Despite the novel’s pastoral setting: “I can put my eyes just to the top of the wheat and see the world stretch out flat to the sky,” Lou Ann says, this is a coming of age novel that is, at its core, a novel about abuse and neglect.

Lou Ann’s parents are, for the most part, reprehensible. Her mother walks a fine line between disinterest and cruelty and her father is a handsome philanderer. Even the relationship between Lou Ann and her brother disintegrates (after Lou Ann rats him out over a dirty song he’s sung to her) and that leaves Lou Ann pretty much on her own.

‘The Box Children’ of the novel’s title refers to the five babies Lou Ann’s mother has lost due to miscarriage or still birth. When the novel opens, we learn that she is pregnant again. Instead of making Mother a sympathetic character, she is abhorrent. One story of how she toilet trains babies in the community is paraticularly disturbing. Additionally, it is heart-wrenching to see how Lou Ann strives to be good for her mother, to earn her love, and yet never quite manages.

The Box Children is the story of a dysfunctional family but it is not without humour or hope. Lou Ann is a smart girl with a talent for music and a kind soul and one suspects that, eventually, she’ll leave the farm and go on to great things.

This is a lovely book.

The Innocent by Harlan Coben

Those who like Harlan Coben, seem to like him a lot. The Innocent was my first Coben book and while I didn’t love it, it did deliver enough curious twists and sympathetic characters to keep my interest.

The difficulty in writing about a suspense thriller is trying to avoid giving away too many important plot points. Briefly, The Innocent concerns Matt Hunter an ex-con (but only marginally because his crime was more accident than premeditated) who has returned to his home town after serving his sentence with his wife, Olivia. Olivia goes away on a business trip and Matt receives a cell phone picture of her in a hotel room with another man. The story unravels from there.

In some ways The Innocent’s convoluted plot doesn’t really work.Too many people have too small a part to play in the book’s nasty business…and some of the pieces seem gratuitous rather than helpful. Still, like a good book in this genre should, the book clicks along at a healthy pace and the lead character, Matt, is smart and likable.

New Moon by Stephenie Meyer

Oh, Stephenie.

You know, I really did like Twilight. At the very least I was willing to overlook the artistic license the author took with vampire conventions. And I was willing to forfeit my belief that the vampire myth is intrinsically connected to sexuality because there’s no sex in Meyer’s books. Given all that, Twilight at least moved along at a reasonable clip. The same can not be said about New Moon.

The central character of these books is Bella, a high school student living with her Police Chief father, Charlie. She turns 18 as the book begins and soon after her vampire boyfriend, he of the exquisite face, Edward, announces that he is leaving her. For her own good. Of course. Problem is, his reason for leaving is explained in a line which is lost in pages of pedestrian prose which I had to re-read several times to actually figure out why he decided he must depart.

They aren’t reunited until 500+ excruciating pages later…pages filled with, um, filler. Bella restarts her friendship with Jacob, a boy with a secret of his own. Her relationship with her father stretches and strains and Bella rebels by…learning to ride a motorcycle.

I wish I could say that the book (and the characters) redeems itself by the end, but it doesn’t. New Moon felt like a rushed (bloated) sequel to a popular book. It could have used a really good editor. And a story.

Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay

“Psychologically astute, richly rendered and deftly paced. It’s a pleasure from start to finish.” – Toronto Star

Canadian author Elizabeth Hay won the Giller Prize for her novel, Late Nights on Air. Obviously, you begin a book like this- one with a certain pedigree already attached- with a little trepidation. I mean, what if you hate it?

I am happy to report that this is a beautiful book.

Set in Yellowknife in 1975, the novel tells the story of the intersecting lives of Harry (a CBC radio station manager), Dido (a beautiful announcer who has fled to the North to escape a complicated, but profound, relationship), Eleanor (the station’s secretary), Eddy (the station’s technician), Ralph (a local photographer and on-air book reviewer) and Gwen (a newcomer, who had come to the North inspired by the tragic story of an explorer named John Hornby.) Although Gwen is clearly the central character of the book, Hay deftly manages the interior lives of all the characters and, in doing so, makes us yearn to know more.

The last third of the book takes four of the characters on a tremendous canoe trip, inspired by the life of Hornby. That trip and the consequences of it forever change the lives of these characters.

I have always said that I hate a book that flashes us forward in time and shows us where the characters are now. Hay employs this device, but it seems almost organic. And at the book’s conclusion, I felt truly sad to be parting company with these people.

Ultimately, though, this book is about silence, longing, isolation, community and what love looks like.

I highly recommend it.

Sweet Ruin by Cathi Hanauer

Cathi Hanauer’s book takes an age-old theme, adultery, and turns it into a gripping page-turner of a novel. Sweet Ruin introduces us to 35 year old Elayna, a work-at-home editor who is just crawling out of a two-year depression after the death of her infant son, Oliver. Her husband, Paul, is a benign, but absent figure, someone who is clearly burying his own grief in his work as a lawyer. Their six-year-old daughter, Hazel, is intelligent and demanding.

“…that brilliant April, after rain had soaked us all March, it felt to me as if the earth and the plants, the insects and trees just couldn’t stay in their pants,” Elayna observes. And from the ruin of her life, Elayna begins to emerge and just as she does she meets, Kevin, a much younger boy-man who lives across the street.

It would be easy to find fault with Elayna- after all, she loves her husband and her daughter and has, what appears to be a perfect life. But Hanauer asks us to imagine Elayna as a woman who has lost more than a child; she’s lost, in a life filled with bossy caregivers and schedules dictated by a busy child and workaholic husband, some essential part of herself. It’s almost impossible not to relate to her.

And as Elayna’s relationship with Kevin skirts closer and closer to something from which there will be no turning back, it’s hard not to be swept along. Partly it has to do with Hanauer’s beautiful prose and partly it has to do with how carefully she builds Elayna’s world. Either way, it was impossible to put this book down because even though the it tells an age-old story, it felt new and heartbreaking to me.


The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

“The Thirteenth Tale is a cleverly plotted, beautifully written homage to the classic romantic mystery novel… Gothic elements are skilfully re-imagined in a peculiar tale of madness, murder, incest and dark secrets…. It is a remarkable first book, a book about the joy of books, a riveting multi-layered mystery that twists and turns, and weaves a quite magical spell for most of its length.” –The Independent

Diane Setterfield’s first novel is a wonderful accomplishment. This is a book lover’s book- even the book’s cover and the weight of the pages appealed to the bibliophile in me. But beyond the aesthetics of the book, Setterfield tells a rip roarin’ tale, an old-fashioned tale filled with mystery and intrigue and personal ghosts.

Margaret Lea lives a quiet life, working with her father in their little antiquarian bookstore. We know very little about Margaret other than the fact that she is close to her father, but not to her mother. She is unmarried. We don’t know how old she is. We do learn, early on, that she is a surviving twin- a fact she stumbles upon, quite by accident when she is young, a piece of her family history which haunts her throughout her life.

Then Vida Winter, the most celebrated writer of the time, writes to Margaret inviting her to hear the truth of her life- a life which has been largely reclusive. This story is the subject of The Thirteenth Tale. And it is a tale that is Gothic, relying on the conventions of literature from the 18th and 19th centuries: ghosts and secrets and unrequited love abound in its pages. It’s a page-turner in the very best sense.

And as the story’s mystery unravels, you’ll find yourself wondering whether all the clues were there from the very beginning…and want to go back to trace the breadcrumb trail.