All We Shall Know: an emotional roller coaster you’ll want to ride

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What I read

All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan

What it’s about

Melody Shee, a 33-year-old woman, is pregnant, but the father isn’t her husband, whom she’s been with since high school. The father is Martin Toppy, the 17-year-old boy Melody has been teaching to read inside her home.

Melody’s husband has left her, and she can’t find Martin. In her search for Martin, Melody befriends a young woman named Mary Crothery, who is dealing with her own troubles. The two women develop a bond while they deal with family feuds and town gossip.

Most of this story is introspective, where the reader gets much more information from Melody than the characters do. Melody tells of the mistakes she has made leading up to the pregnancy and some of the secrets she has kept from others in her life. But Mary might be able to help Melody right some of her wrongs.

Why I picked it up

I heard about this book back in the summer, marked it on my TBR list, and then forgot about it. Browsing in the bookstore earlier this month, the spine jumped out at me. The title was familiar. I read the back cover copy and was reminded of my desire to read this one. So, of course, I bought it.

What I liked about it

At first, I was drawn in by the idea of the affair. I wanted to know what led to Melody taking advantage of her student, and I wanted to find out what would happen with her marriage. But I quickly realized there is a lot more going on in this book. I thought I had a handle on things only to discover there was more to it, reinforcing the idea that things aren’t always as they seem.

Melody isn’t exactly a likeable character. She’s made some terrible life choices and her decisions weren’t always ones I had empathy for. But she did feel believable, and I was hooked on trying to understand her decisions. At times I was shocked by the things she did, but I wanted to see her somehow redeem herself.

You’ll want to read it if…

If you like emotional roller coasters, this one’s for you. At only 180 pages, you’ll wonder how you could experience a wide range of emotions so quickly, how you could go up and down so much in such a short span of time.

This is also a great choice for readers who like to get into the psyche of characters, even if those characters aren’t necessarily people you’d like in real life.

Recommended refreshments

A cappuccino, like the ones Melody and Mary order at a cafe in town (Mary, who has never had one before, endearingly calls it a “coffacheeno”) and/or the KitKats that the two women share sitting in Melody’s kitchen one day.

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The books I read in 2017

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As 2017 comes to a close, I’m taking some time to reflect on the books I read in the past year. When I reread the post I wrote at the end of 2016, I found the percentage of Canadian books I’ve read hasn’t changed, the books I buy and the ones I borrow from the library remain pretty equal, and I’m still a sucker for a compelling coming-of-age tale. The years change but some things stay the same.

Stand-out books

The longest book I read

The Nix by Nathan Hill (737 pages)

The shortest book I read

Animal Farm by George Orwell (95 pages)

The book I expected to hate but didn’t

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. This book received so much praise that it might be surprising to hear I didn’t think I’d like it. But, the thing is, I’m not usually a fan of science fiction. I really only read this book because it was a book club selection. I didn’t totally get into the parts that take place in the future, but I was drawn in by the parts that occur in modern day. Above all, I loved the connection between characters over the different time periods.

The book I expected to love but didn’t

Smile by Roddy Doyle. I liked this book more at the beginning, but, as it went on, I was disappointed in the direction it took and I found the end somewhat predictable.

The book that had been on my TBR list for too long

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. I first read Plath’s poetry when I was a brooding teen and I’ve continued to turn to her poems throughout my adult life. But I never got around to reading her novel The Bell Jar until this year. I had a dream that I came across a copy in a used bookstore. Later that week, I was in a used bookstore and, without looking for the book, I found myself face to face with The Bell Jar. I took it as a sign that it was time to read this book, and I’m so glad I did.

The book that surprised me the most

Bellevue Square by Michael Redhill. I put this book on hold at the library when it was longlisted for the Giller Prize. I was intrigued by the premise of a woman trying to meet her doppelgänger, but I wasn’t totally sure I’d get into it. A few days after the book won the Giller, my hold arrived. The entire time I was reading this book, I kept thinking WTF? And yet I thoroughly enjoyed it. I definitely wasn’t expecting this book to have so much going on.

The book that gave me a life lesson when I wasn’t expecting one

Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys by Viv Albertine. I hadn’t heard any music by The Slits before, but I wanted to read the autobiography of the band’s lead guitarist because I wanted to hear the perspective of a female musician during the ’70s punk era. I didn’t expect to get some general life advice that I’ve found myself returning to.

In a section of the book where Albertine discusses trying to say yes to more opportunities in her life, she also mentions that sometimes the best thing is to “say yes to nothing.” Sometimes none of the options available to us are good for us. “If your choice is either the wrong thing or nothing, however frightened you are, you’ve got to take nothing.” I don’t know if that will make as much sense without the context of the rest of the book, but it’s something that really hit home for me.

The books that had me saying “Just one more chapter”

My 5 favourite books read in 2017

By the numbers

Books I bought: 45% (bought new: 40%, bought used: 5%)

Books borrowed from the library: 47%

Books received as gifts: 3%

Books borrowed from friends or family: 5%

Books written by Canadian writers: 35%

Books written by women: 63%

Books written by men: 37%

Books published in 2017: 44%

Fiction: 90%

Non-fiction: 10%

Lessons learned

Sometimes the buzz is warranted, but sometimes it’s just noise.

I am guilty of buying into the hype. I won’t read just any book that gets a 5-star review, but if the premise sounds interesting the title gets a lot of praise, too often I’ll get excited, thinking the book will change my life or something. And of course that isn’t being fair–to me or to the book. I still plan to read book reviews and turn to social media to find out about new books, but I also want to make more of an effort to find those titles that aren’t getting that kind of attention. I love it when I pick up a book at the bookstore or library on a whim and find an absolute gem. I want more of that.

Don’t dismiss an entire genre.

Of course I’ve always known this in theory, but I do have a bad habit of seeing a book categorized as a certain genre and deciding it’s not for me. But this year I read some science fiction and horror–genres I tend to avoid–and found that I liked some of these books. So I’m going to try to give more genres a chance.

It doesn’t matter how long it takes to read a book.

Sometimes I feel a bit guilty if it takes me longer than usual to finish a book, especially if it is a book I really enjoy. But I’ve been trying to remind myself that I’ve got other things going on, too. Some weeks, I have more time to read, and other weeks, I end up being more social or busy with other interests. There’s nothing wrong with being a reader who does things other than read.

 

The sweet taste of The Ghost Orchard by Helen Humphreys

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What I read

The Ghost Orchard by Helen Humphreys

What it’s about

The Ghost Orchard‘s subtitle is The Hidden History of the Apple in North America. It’s not that this subtitle is inaccurate, but it doesn’t cover everything the book is about. Sure, Humphreys delves into details about the history of the fruit (which is much more fascinating than I expected), but the book is also partly a memoir.

Humphreys was inspired to write this book when she found the White Winter Pearmain variety growing near her home. At the same time, a friend of hers was in the process of dying.

In The Ghost Orchard, Humphreys starts with the apple but moves beyond it, creating a book about relationships, friendship, art and the human connection with nature.

Why I picked it up

I’ve read several of Humphreys’ books (I’ve also written about Wild Dogs), and so far I have liked everything I’ve read. There was a good chance I was going to pick this one up at some point. While browsing in the bookstore at IFOA this year, I saw The Ghost Orchard and read the first couple of pages. Sucked in by Humphreys’ writing style, I bought the book that evening.

What I liked about it

The book is broken up into five main sections, and one of these sections is about Robert Frost. Frost is one of my favourite poets, so I sort of expected to like this part as soon as I saw the heading. This section beautifully described Frost’s personal relationship with apples as well as his close friendship with poet Edward Thomas.

There is also a section on the United States Department of Agriculture watercolour artists. Here, Humphreys tells of the lives of the artists who used to paint apples before photographers ran them out of jobs. She also brings in stories of her grandfather, who used to paint pictures of plants for seed catalogues. It’s a job I’d never thought of, and I appreciated these stories of art and artists.

But the main thing I liked about this book is what I like about all of Humphreys’ books: her gorgeous prose. She writes so beautifully. It’s no surprise that she is not only a non-fiction writer and a novelist, but also a poet.

You’ll want to read it if…

Readers who will enjoy The Ghost Orchard the most are ones who like nature, or at least have an appreciation for it. It’s for readers who might be intrigued by the history of the apple, but who are even more fascinated by people and human relationships. And if you’re looking to develop more of an appreciation for agriculture, this might do the trick, too.

Recommended refreshments

This is too obvious. However, venture outside of your local grocery store to get your apples! For the ultimate refreshment, visit an orchard. Pick your apples off a tree! I must agree with Humphreys and Henry David Thoreau: The apple tastes best when it’s eaten outdoors.

(I know; it’s getting cold. A mug of hot apple cider while reading by the fire is also a good option.)

Little Fires Everywhere should be your next book club pick

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What I read

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

What it’s about

Little Fires Everywhere begins with a house fire and then reveals the series of events leading up to it. The events centre around two families: the Richardsons and the Warrens.

After years of moving from town to town, artist Mia Warren and her teenaged daughter, Pearl, arrive in to Shaker Heights, a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, where they intend to set roots. They rent a home from the Richardsons, whose four teenaged children quickly befriend Pearl. But when an adoption case involving people close to both families forces the entire town to pick sides, Mrs. Richardson digs into her tenant’s past to find out just who she is renting to.

This novel will give you a lot to think about, as it examines themes such as race and class, secrets within families, motherhood, and suburban life.

Why I picked it up

It’s hard to remember where I first heard about Little Fires Everywhere. I’ve come across this title in several online lists and articles and have seen it all over social media, too. But I was curious to read it because I’ve also read Ng’s impressive debut novel, Everything I Never Told You. I picked up a copy at Book City’s Bloor West location.

What I liked about it

I loved how real the characters felt, especially the teenagers. Pearl and the Richardson children (Trip, Lexie, Moody and Izzy) are such distinct people with their own strengths, weaknesses and desires. I felt empathy for each of them at different points and for different reasons. And I was impressed that Ng could write a novel that deals with big ideas and themes and could connect them so beautifully. There were some elements of mystery in this book that had me hooked, too (the origin of the fire, Mia’s past). It was difficult to put this novel down, but it felt like such a treat whenever I could steal a moment to get back to it.

You’ll want to read it if…

Little Fires Everywhere will appeal to readers who like novels with realistic characters and some element of mystery. It’s also a good choice for readers interested in family dynamics and mother-daughter relationships in particular. This novel would make an excellent book club pick. I suspect it would initiate some interesting discussion.

Recommended refreshments

Leftover Chinese food, like the rice and sweet-and-sour pork rice Mia brings home after her shifts working at Lucky Palace.

Be Ready for the Lightning: a riveting sophomore novel

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What I read

Be Ready for the Lightning by Grace O’Connell

What it’s about

Veda has always been close with her brother, Conrad. Even when Conrad begins getting into fights–behaviour that is inexplicable even to him–Veda is by her brother’s side, taking care of him. But when one of Conrad’s fights results in Veda getting injured, she leaves her hometown of Vancouver and moves to New York for a fresh start. It’s here, in Manhattan, that Veda ends up taken hostage while travelling on a city bus.

But this isn’t a novel that just follows a series of events. It’s a story about a brother and sister, a group of lifelong friends, and a thirty-something woman who comes to recognize her own power and strength.

Why I picked it up

I read O’Connell’s debut novel, Magnified World, when it came out a few years ago. O’Connell has been on my radar since then. When I read the first page while browsing in Book City on the Danforth, I was sucked in, and so, of course, I bought the book.

What I liked about it

This novel grabbed me and didn’t let go. There are a lot of things that happen, and even though I was often surprised, the story remained believable.

The way O’Connell structured the novel was wise, too. The story weaves between time periods–from Veda’s life before the hostage situation to after–which played a part in keeping me hooked.

As far as the characters go, not only was I interested in the sibling relationship between Veda and Conrad, but I also liked how the story followed a group of friends and how their dynamic changed from childhood into adulthood.

You’ll want to read it if…

Be Ready for the Lightning is a quick read and a book you won’t want to put down until you get to the end. It’s a great summer read (and there’s still a bit of the season left). Fans of thrillers and suspense novels will enjoy this book. It’s full of dramatic moments, and the scenes on the bus are particularly cinematic. But it’s also a great choice if you’re interested in reading about sibling relationships and friendships and exploring those dynamics. And if you’re a supporter of CanLit, this is a novel you’ll be happy to pick up, too.

Recommended refreshments

Pancakes, like the ones Veda’s friend Al makes for her and his wife when Veda is staying with them in Manhattan. (And if you can have a friend make them for you, too, that’s even better.)