Monday, January 2, 2017

2016 Reads | The Best Books I Read This Year

Let's talk books today, shall we? According to my GoodReads tracker, I read 35 books in 2016. That's not as impressive as last year's 59 books ... *but* considering I had a baby halfway through the year and spent 2 months in a sleep-deprived stupor, I think 35 is pretty respectable. Of all the books I read this year, these were my favorites ...

A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler
From the very first page, I was swept up and carried off to the Austrain Alps ... from the creaky old ski lifts to the first snowfall of the season, Seethaler brought it all to life with his simple (but stunning) descriptions. I completely agree with the review posted in the Mail on Sunday - "Seethaler shows that for even the most ordinary people, life is an extraordinary adventure - and he does so tenderly and memorably." 

Enchanted Islands by Allison Amend 

"Even large worlds have small islands." I absolutely adored this book. I went into thinking it was going to be about espionage during WWII - and yes, there's a little of that - but really this is a story about friendship and the way relationships can influence and alter our lives. The way Amend writes about intimacy (not the sexual kind, but the kind that comes from years of shared secrets) is spectacular. I went into this book knowing very little about the plot - I was sold as soon as I heard "espionage on the Galapagos Islands in the 1940s" - and I think the less you know about the plot, the better. This is the kind of story that unfolds perfectly as you go along and you'll want to avoid spoilers.

The Crooked Heart Of Mercy by Billie Livingston 

This novel completely sucked me in and I was unable to put it down. The Crooked Heart of Mercy is a beautifully written story about forgiveness and grief, brokenness and second chances. Billie Livingston's use of multiple points of view is brilliant; her characters are all deeply flawed but so loveable and authentic. I devoured every page of this and can't wait to read more of Livingston's work.

A Bollywood Affair by Sonali Dev

Maybe it's because I read this while being 9 months pregnant and extremely hormonal, but this book gave me *all* the feels. Full disclaimer upfront - this won't be everyone's cup of tea. It's your classic "good girl falls for the bad boy" love story, but it's filled with unique twists and turns that sweep you up and leave you smitten. I gushed over every page and then insisted Alan take me out for Indian food to satisfy my insane craving for naan bread and butter chicken.

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

There was just something about Vinegar Girl ... I can't quite put my finger on it, but I loved it. Part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, this is a retelling of The Taming Of The Shrew. I've never read the original Shakespeare play, but I loved this modern day version. It made me laugh out loud (several times) and I found the love story component refreshingly honest and realistic.

... And last but certainly not least, my #1 favorite read of the year was ....

The House At The Edge Of Night by Catherine Banner 

What can I say about this multi-generational saga about a family living on a remote island off the coast of Sicily? It's perfection. You all need to go out and buy it, right now. I started this a few days before Lina was born and found time to finish it as soon as we got home from the hospital because it's just that good. Yes folks, I gave up valuable nap time to read this! The House At The Edge Of Night is exquisite - loveable characters, gorgeous writing, a vibrant setting ... storytelling at its finest.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

2015 Reads | The Best Books I Read This Year

2015 was a whirlwind for me that included lots of travel (can you believe I traveled to Las Vegas, Germany, France, Belgium AND the Netherlands this year?!!) and lots of writing. It also included lots of reading. My reading goal for 2015 was to read at least 45 books from a variety of genres and I managed to do that. In fact, I surpassed my goal! *High five for being an overachiever* I read a grand total of 59 books in 2015 including graphic novels, science fiction, history, young adult, romance, poetry and thrillers. These were my top 5 reads …

I bought this book at Powell's during a trip to Portland and it sat on my shelf for 5 years before I finally got around to picking it up in early February. It was such a treat to read! The story is set in the 1950s and follows a young mute boy named Bonaventure who was born with the gift of hearing the universe … he can hear everything, from flowers growing in nearby fields to voices drifting in from the past. A blend of my two favorite genres, magical realism and historical fiction, The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow is filled with gorgeous, lyrical writing and outstanding characterization. With a hint of mystery and a sprinkling of theology, this book captivated me from start to finish. It reminded me quite a bit of Jan-Philipp Sendker's The Art Of Hearing Heartbeats which topped my favorites list back in 2012.

I saw this book at the library and the title immediately jumped out at me. God got a dog?! What in the world? … Turns out, the book was a fantastic collection of illustrated poems. Each poem ponders the question "what if God was one of us?" and paints beautiful, whimsical images of God eating spaghetti for the first time, writing fan mail, going to church, even getting into a bar fight. The poems feature "God", front and centre, but what stood out to me was how each poem captured us … our humanity and the things we take for granted. I was expecting this to be a light, uplifting read but it was actually quite thought-provoking. I brought the book back to the library and immediately ordered my own copy.

"Here's what I want you to do: tell someone you love them and that dinner's at six." 

Oh, you guys. I LOVED this book. This was my first Shauna Niequist read and she immediately forged her way onto my "I must read everything and anything this woman writes" list. Bread & Wine is a collection of essays about hospitality - the messy, authentic kind, not the Pinterest variety - and community and friendship and faith. It's also about food, obviously, and Shauna weaves these topics together in such a beautiful, lyrical way. You can tell Shauna writes from the heart, pouring all she has onto the page. This book inspired me to get into the kitchen, cook dinner for a friend and plug deeper into community.

This book begins in 1895 when Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel is a young girl and wraps up in the 1950s when she's 71 years old. Despite covering an entire lifetime of history and anecdotes, Mademoiselle Chanel is a page turner from start to finish. It has a little of everything … romance, business, politics, war, feminism, classism, fashion, drugs, high society, several scandals and lots of controversy. The story flows through the First World War, the roaring 20s, the Great Depression and World War II - really, the epitome of historical fiction! I'm still amazed CW Gortner managed to squeeze so much into 400 pages without an ounce of "info dumping". I loved the story, but as a historical fiction writer what really caught my attention here was the effortless blend of fact and fiction. I just want to sit down with Gortner and have him teach me all the tricks of the trade.

I've saved the best for last, folks. Hausfrau was, without a doubt, my absolute favorite read of 2015. If you know me personally and are at all familiar with the novel's plot, this may surprise you … a story about adultery, with steamy sex scenes in just about every chapter? Really?! Yes. Really. Trust me on this.

Hausfrau is one of the most challenging books I've ever read as far as content goes, but it was so, SO worth it. Beautifully written; a heartbreaking, disturbing story of a woman whose life is spiralling out of control. Jill Alexander Essbaum is an award-winning poet, and the writing in this book was absolutely stunning … the metaphors, the descriptions, oh be still my heart! It made me cry and I can count on one hand the number of books that have made me cry (answer: four) I would definitely recommend picking this one up, especially if you're a fan of complex stories that dig deep into a character's psyche.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Boldt Castle - New York, USA

In October 2014, during a trip back to the east coast to visit family, we spent a day sailing through the Thousand Islands in the St-Lawrence River. We boarded our tour boat in Gananoque, a small town in southeastern Ontario, and sailed up to Alexandra Bay, New York, where we disembarked at the stunning Boldt Castle.

Boldt Castle was built by George C. Boldt, millionaire proprietor of the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. He began building the castle as a gift for his wife, Louise, in the early 1900's. The castle was built to resemble the famous rhineland castles in Boldt's homeland, Germany, and it does not disappoint. Its design includes a drawbridge, 120 rooms, a ballroom, stunning stained class windows and Italian gardens. If you've always wanted to see a fairytale castle and can't make it over to Europe anytime soon, Boldt Castle might just be the perfect place for you! Here, take a look …

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

If You're Going To San Francisco ...

San Francisco made its way onto my bucket list four years ago when I moved to the west coast. I arrived in Vancouver on a rainy Christmas Eve with my whole east coast life packed into four suitcases (more on that story some other day) and as I settled into my new surroundings I slowly became aquainted with the travel rhythm of west coasters.

It didn't take me long to realize that the weekend road trips down to New Jersey and New York City I had enjoyed so much in my youth would be replaced with getaways to Seattle and Portland. If I wanted to lounge on a beach I'd be heading to Hawaii or Southern California, not Florida, and if I was in search of a good time Las Vegas would always be an affordable option. And then there was San Francisco … a city I knew precisely three things about:

1) It was home to the Golden Gate Bridge
2) There were a lot of hills and slopes
3) If I went, I should wear a flower in my hair.

Just four weeks after Alan and I started dating, he headed down to the Bay area for a month-long business trip. We kept in touch with daily phone conversations, emails, text messages and a secret Drop Box folder where he would upload photos of the city, the wineries, his rental apartment. I would pore over those photos, inspecting every detail, trying to visualize this strange place that had taken my sweetheart hostage. My first glimpse of the city was through Alan's eyes and perhaps that's why I romanticized it the way I did.

He promised to bring me there one day and - fast-forward through six months of dating, a sparkly engagement ring, a wedding and two years of marriage - he finally made good on his promise.

San Francisco did not disappoint. I wasn't prepared for the foggy mornings and the cold wind but, other than that, it was lovely. The Victorian architecture and the beautiful gardens hidden away behind cast iron gates … the hills so steep they made my heart beat a little faster … the eclectic sights and sounds of Chinatown … the boardwalks and piers … the sound of seagulls squawking as they soared above the tourists in Fisherman's Wharf. Also, the thin crust pizza in Sausalito. I'm pretty sure I want to eat that pizza every day for the rest of my life. So delish.

San Francisco is the kind of place everyone should visit at least once. I'm so glad it's just a two hour plane ride away; we'll be returning again someday soon.