By Chance Alone, by Max Eisen

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If there is one very important book that you read this year, read By Chance Alone, by Max Eisen. Although you will learn by the end of this review, the content is extremely heavy, it’s an incredibly readable book. It has been on my radar only since the the Canada Reads nominations came out. And, lo and behold, it won!! I read it shortly before the winners were announced, but it’s taken me a long time to sum of my thoughts on this incredible story of survival and character.

More than 70 years after the trauma that Tibor “Max” Eisen had survived at Auschwitz, he decided to write By Chance Alone detailing the slave labour at Auschwitz I, the “death march” in January 1945, and the journey of his life after the liberation. He details the experience of dealing with the physical and psychological trauma that he was worked in these 70 years. And now, Eisen has made his father’s final wishes come true, he is educating the world about the Holocaust in hopes that something of this tragic does not happen again.

Then he said, “If you survive, you must tell the world what happened here. Now go.”

Max’s title By Chance Alone, could not have been more perfect. There are many moments where Eisen’s survival is based solely on luck or circumstance. I’m not saying that he’s just “lucky” to be alive, but what I am saying is that his luck, his will to survive, and his intelligence is what led him to survive. Between being the right age, and meeting/making friends within Auschwitz with the right people, Eisen made the right choices, even while he was starved and had trouble thinking, to keep on living. 

Eisen had eventually after the liberation, made his way… which was NO easy task… to Toronto, Canada. When his oldest granddaughter asked him to accompany her overseas Auschwitz for a class trip, he decided he would go back for the first time. Since then he has made it his mission for the past 22 years to educate people about the Holocaust. His first public speaking engagement was in Barrie, Ontario, to a grade 5 class, and now he travels all over Canada and the World.

“Where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people.” – Heinrich Heine

Every Canadian, and every person, should read this book. I’m so thrilled that Max’s book won the Canada Reads, because he has given us the chance to dig down into the prejudices, and radical thinking that happens in this world and that we have the chance to change. Max Eisen is donating a portion of his royalties from this book to institutions promoting tolerance and understanding. SO after I read my copy from the library, I went out to buy a copy for my own personal library. 

Please, do me a favour, and read this book. 

 

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The Gown, by Jennifer Robson

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I can actually say that I’ve read every one of Jennifer Robson’s novels. I was obsessed with her series called The Great War, which featured three novels. She writes historical fiction, which I love, but she’s also from Toronto, Canada… so that makes me want to champion her even more. I adored this novel, and feel like I connected with it on such a personal level.

The Gown is a fictional account of the real story behind Princess Elizabeth’s (now the Queen) much anticipated wedding gown. It’s post-war in 1947 London, England, and the country is feeling the aftershocks of the debt the country is now in. With rations on food, fuel, and even fabric, this wedding brought many mixed feelings for the people of England. Ann, a prized embroiderer at Hartnell, survived war, unlike many people around her. Ann’s work becomes her life, and when she’s introduced to the newest, and highly skilled embroiderer at Hartnell, Miriam, she decides to try to develop a friendship. Miriam is a French, Jewish emigrant who also survived the war, unlike the rest of her family. Keeping the secret of her past heritage, and her harrowing experience in Ravensbruck, she works her way to the top of the embroidery team at Hartnells. Then, when news breaks that the Princess is engaged and choses Hartnell’s to make the gown, the two, along with the rest of the team, work long days until the day arrives. Flash forward to 2016, Heather (Ann’s granddaughter) is gifted a box with her name on it when her Nan, Ann, has passed away. Heather is shocked to find embroidery samples, and pictures of Nan and her friend, Miriam. From here, Heather embarks on a journey to find out the truth of her grandmother’s unknown, and exciting past.

Let me start off by saying, there are just so many reasons I loved this novel. First of all, the Royals just fascinate me. Whether it’s as far back as Henry the VIII, and his many wives, or the most recent Royal Wedding… I’m so there. But, as fascinating as the Royals are, Jennifer Robson has executed a novel which gives you a “behind the scenes” look at the making of the gown. She told the story of the women who made the gown, and these were stories that never told. Ann, and Miriam, were such beautiful characters, who were deeply affected by the War. The secrets that they held inside were the thing that bonded them, although they never really told each other. Eventually, many years later, Heather puts them altogether. Jennifer Robson actually had the opportunity to interview a seamstress that worked on the gown to help her construct this story.

Lastly, the relationship between Heather and her Nan was such a special one. Even though they had a strong relationship, Nan (aka, Ann) had never told Heather about her incredible past and how she ended up in Canada. This relationship made me really grateful for the one my Gramma Lisa and I have. Over the years, my Gramma has told me so many wonderful stories to me about her own past. I love hearing about her childhood, teenager years, and becoming a wife, and a mother… and so much more!

What’s special about this novel is the obvious of it being a fascinating time in history… but I think on a deeper level it reminds you to be curious about the past. To ask questions, and to learn about your families history. I think everyone seems to think that their life isn’t all that interesting, but I find when you start talking to people their lives I find them so intriguing.

Anywho, enough of me gushing. Go read this novel!

An Unwanted Guest, by Shari Lapena

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Shari Lapena’s newest novel, An Unwanted Guest, is a thrilling, suspenseful ride. This was the first book of hers that I have read, as I don’t usually do the “murder mystery” genre. But I will also admit that when I do read this genre, I find myself curled up all day on the couch, turning the pages so fast.

It’s a snowy, wintry night in Catskills at Mitchell’s Inn. Car by car, guests are arriving separately as they are looking to escape their hectic lives to have luxurious stay at the Inn. On top of escaping, they all have separate reasons for escaping… re-kindling relationships, repair a friendship, or write a novel. Then, when one of the guests turns up dead. The guests start to panic, just when the next guest is found murdered. Whodunnit??

This novel has all the Agatha Christie vibes. Lapena writes with all the flair of the classic mystery feels, which leaves you not wanting to put this book down. Her characters are well developed, and you feel like you get a great backstory on their lives. This little detail though can be pretty deceiving, because you actually have no idea who is the killer. Now admittedly, I am the worst person at figure out who the killer is, but I still thought it was well executed!

Shari Lapena is a Canadian author, from Toronto, which is a little detail I did not know before reading this book. She had two other bestsellers before this, The Couple Next Door, and A Stranger in the House… which I will now be reading!

Until next time, happy reading!

 

December: Embracing it all.

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The year has come to an end, and so has my Happiness Project. I dedicated December to embracing all the things that actually worked for me this year.

Here’s what I’ve learned throughout this process. That happiness isn’t actually a state, or a personality trait. Happiness is a fleeting moment, it’s the smile of your child’s face when you walk in the room. It’s quiet moments of hot coffee and books while the household is sleeping. It’s the complete bliss of actually being in the moment for once, instead of looking at your phone or ahead to the future. I think that the idea of being eternally happy initially sounds great, but how do we know true happiness if we haven’t experienced the lows.

This project was definitely productive as I picked up some great habits in which I will carry with for hopefully a long time. Here’s my quick list of things I will continue to do:

  • Breathe. Take moments to take a deep breathe, and really enjoy how your lungs feel when they are full.
  • Pursuing passions. After finally signing up for a marathon again after 6/7 years, what I realized is that I am so capable of anything I put my mind to. So whether it’s running, a fun hobby, or reading, I want to continue to pursue and working towards goals for fun. No pressure to do certain times, or setting high bars… just purely enjoying doing something.
  • Saying no. This includes not over scheduling, telling people what I actually want, and focusing on what’s most important for our family.
  • Dates with my Husband. This was life changing. We have actually been really keeping this goal up, and it’s been great to get out as a couple again.
  • Yoga. Enough said… perfect for my mindset, and my body.

Well friends, that rounds up a whole year of working on happiness!! If you are interested in reading about the my personal project, check this link out. If you are interested in doing a happiness project, feel free to drop me a line, or a comment. I’d love to chat!

 

Kingdom of the Blind, Louise Penny

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Happy Christmas Eve, friends! If you have been following my blog for a bit, you will know how deeply I love the The Armand Gamache series, by Louise Penny. Kingdom of the Blind is the newest addition to the series, making it #14. The most frequent question I get when I chat with people about this series is, “do you have to read it in order?” And my answer is always YES. Start at the beginning, and enjoy every beautiful page of each book in the series. It’s just that good.

Kingdom of the Blind starts off with Armand with a letter in which he’s been invited to an abandoned farmhouse just outside of Three Pines, in Quebec. He soon finds out that he’s been made an executor of the homeowner’s will… and she’s a complete stranger. This elderly woman who owned this delapitated house, has some delusion requests in her will which Armand seems to find quite stranger. That is until a body turns up, and the layers of the mysterious will start to become peeled back.

With each instalment of this series, I find myself feeling really scared to read the newest one, and have it not be as good as the last one. Louise Penny NEVER disappoints me. She draws these characters so well in your mind that you really feel like you know them. I also have a theory that she really loves food, because every time I read these novels, I want to curl up with some comfort food after reading her descriptions.

This instalment was incredible, and I feel like a bit of a departure from most of the other ones in the series. You get to really see Armand starting to slow down and train his predecessors. Which feels really wrong, and sad to me, but I don’t think he’s getting anywhere near retiring. Although the ending of this book has me wondering where she’s going to take this series, as there are a couple definite options.

It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.

What was the best part of this book was the Author’s Note. Louise Penny talks about how she felt that after her husband’s passing, there would be no more instalments to the Armand Gamache series. She has spoken openly about how much her husband had inspired her to write a character like Armand. He who is gentle, intelligent, poetic and equipped to get a job done. So she felt like continuing writing was impossible without her muse. And yet, one day she just started to write a sentence. Then a couple pages, and then now, we are reading this fantastic book.

As a little holiday gift to you… here’s a list of the Armand Gamache books in order:

  1. Still Life
  2. A Fatal Grace
  3. The Cruelest Month
  4. A Rule Against Murder
  5. The Brutal Telling
  6. Bury your Dead
  7. A Trick of the Light
  8. The Beautiful Mystery
  9. How the Light Gets In
  10. The Long Way Home
  11. The Nature of the Beast
  12. A Great Reckoning
  13. Glass Houses
  14. Kingdom of the Blind

Hoping you all have a great holiday season, and are getting lots of time to read 🙂

 

The Goddess of Yantai, by Ian Hamilton

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I was super thrilled when I received Ian Hamilton’s new addition to the Ava Lee series, The Goddess of Yantai. This series is one of my all-time favourites! This is the 11th novel in the series, and I highly suggest starting from the very first one if you want to get into this series. This series follows Ava Lee a forensic accountant, who is a Chinese Canadian, and also an avid runner and martial arts enthusiast. Ava chases big money losses, that are usually involving some very shady characters… hence the martial arts! I always say that this series is like the perfect mix of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and a Jackie Chan movie.

In the Goddess of Yantai, Ava travels to Beijing to view the premiere of her secret lover’s film, Pang Fai. After the premiere, Fai tells Ava that she is being blackmailed by the Chinese Movie Syndicate, who want sexual favours in return for continuing her successful career. At this point Fai has just had enough, and decided that she is with Ava’s help, putting an end to it. When they resist, the blackmail, and threats become increasingly worse. Will Ava be able to get to the bottom of it before the threats go to far??

Ekk… I wanted to just rip through this book, as the pace is fast, and the pages practically flip themselves. I actually limited myself to a certain page number each day though, because I found out that the next instalment isn’t out until July 2019.

These books are just fantastic. If you love great writing, an intense pace, and a bit of a thrill, then these are perfect for you. Ian Hamilton pulls in some real world issues into the plot with the #MeToo movement. He also describes the setting and the food so well that I just want to jump on a plane and fly over to Beijing for a trip. And lastly, Hamilton leaves Ava Lee fans on a cliffhanger with some of your favourite characters and a big old plot twist!!

Until next time, happy reading!

Washington Black, by Esi Edugyan

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If you haven’t seen or heard of Washington Black, you must be hiding under a rock!!! It is the “it” book this fall. While being nominated for both the Man Booker Prize, and the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the accolades for this book are everywhere. BUT, the reason I was motivated to go out and buy this one is that I had gotten very envious when I was told by someone that their book club was reading it… so I thought I’d read it as well, thinking there would be lots to think and chat about in this one. Well, yes, my assumption was accurate!

It’s 1830, in Barbados, on a sugar plantation where you meet Washington Black. He is an eleven year old field slave, who has been chosen by the slave master’s brother, “Titch”, to be his servant. Titch is a scientist, an inventor, and an abolitionist. Titch teaches Washington many things, and gets his help with building a hot air balloon. When the tension at the plantation has risen to an all-time high, Titch decides that he and Wash are getting out of there… via the hot air balloon. From here the adventure begins, with travels around the world, but Wash cannot run away from the trauma of his past. The deep cuts that the plantation has left, and the abuse that was put on the people there are unforgettable. Titch and Wash have a very deep relationship, and as the story unfolds the real adventure begins when they are separated.

Esi Edugyuan’s beautiful prose is a delight to read. It paints a picture so clear that you feel the humidity described, and really feel the characters personalities. What she has done is written a book that makes the reader realize that the trauma of your past can shroud what seems like a bright future. At first I thought this was going to be a story about slavery, but by the end you realize that it’s much more than that. Yes, the terrors of slavery are addressed, but what the real content showed me was how deeply trauma affects someone. Wash went from being a field slave, to a freeman. To the outside eye you would think how lucky his chances were. But the fact that he deals with the guilt, and shame of the people who were his family that he had to leave behind is just all too overwhelming. He deals with the memories that are deeply rooted within the scars of his body, and are resurfaced upon a familiar sight, smell, or feeling.

We must all take on faith the stories of our birth, for though we are in them, we are not yet present.

There were so many fantastic characters in this story. Obviously Wash, but mostly I loved Titch. He was a deeply human character, whom I need to learn more about. I think what would be brilliant to chat with a book club about his story. If you’ve read this book, you will understand what I mean, because his story for me just didn’t feel complete when I finished this book.

This is the type of book that feels like a complete joy to read, but after you close it you continue to think about it. I finished this book over two weeks ago, and just could not figure out the words to write that would give it justice. I just think it’s beautiful, and deserves to be read.

Have you read this one? Please… let’s chat. I’m dying to have a conversation about Washington Black.