Wednesday, September 27, 2023


Thornyhold / Mary Stewart
Vancouver: General Publishing Company, 1990, c1988.
207 p.

I picked another reread for the #SpinsterSeptember IG challenge -- Thornyhold by Mary Stewart. I read this when I was young, and so when I found this paperback edition with the same cover fairly recently, I grabbed it. This is another sweet read, by an author more known for romantic suspense. Thornyhold has a little bit of a mystery, but it's really more about the growth of our main character Gilly, a 27 yr old 'spinster' who has just been left Thornyhold, a house in the country, by her aged cousin Geillis. 

Geillis was a herbalist and witchy sort, and Gilly has inherited a little of those abilities. But when she gets to her new home, the housekeeper from down the lane is in possession, and is extremely bossy and prying. As it turns out, this woman also aspires to witchiness but isn't very good at it, harming others with her potions and practices. 

Gilly must stand up for herself and set boundaries around her home space and her time, and her potential involvement in the goings on of the villagers that her housekeeper runs with. This part is the slightly sinister bit, with some animal abuse and drugged foods appearing.  

But Gilly is really coming into her own, now that she is settled in a home of her own, where she still feels the influence and presence of her cousin Geillis. And she befriends a local boy, who helps her to settle in and get the feel of the area. This boy has a single father, an irascible writer who's youngish, handsome and the local catch. And of course Gilly catches him. 

There are clunky bits in the romance; it feels a bit pat to me, with not much build up or personality shown by the fellow. But the story is really about Gilly, and as that it is so satisfying. Despite being a rather neglected child, and having had to struggle on her own for most of her life so far, she is now sinking into safety and security through this home and her new connections. It's a light and comforting read with a lot of charm, perfect for this time of the year. 

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

The Blue Castle

The Blue Castle / LM Montgomery
TO: Bantam, 1989, c1926.
218 p.

#SpinsterSeptember is an Instagram reading challenge created by @pear.jelly & when I saw it I knew I had to join in. I reached for a couple of comfort reads featuring spinsters for my participation in this one! 

The first one was an old favourite, L.M. Montgomery's The Blue Castle. I'm actually a little surprised I haven't talked about this one before on this blog! In any case, this is a reread of a book I've read many times before. This time around I noticed a few flaws but I still enjoyed my read -- it's an entertaining and satisfying novel, one of the only books she wrote intended for an adult audience. 

As it opens, Valancy Stirling is waking up on her 29th birthday, realizing that she is well and truly a spinster, doomed to living with her mother and aged cousin, repeating the same routine every single day. She's hemmed about with rules and regulations, only able to steal a few minutes a day to enjoy a nature book by her favourite author John Foster. 

But everything changes when she slips away to see the local doctor (not the family doctor) about some heart pains she's been experiencing. The doctor has to hurry off but sends her a letter letting her know that she has a fatal heart condition and a year to live. 

Suddenly Valancy is faced with dying, without ever living. This shakes her up, and she first moves to the farmhouse of the town reprobate to care for his dying daughter, a "fallen woman". This is bad enough, but when poor Cissy dies, instead of returning home meekly, Valancy proposes to the other town outsider, Barney Snaith, just so she can live in the peace and beauty of his backwoods cabin rather than being taken into the bosom of her suffocating family once more. This of course scandalizes the family, who cut her off; little old Aunt Georgiana, a fellow spinster, is the only one who seems to think of her at all. 

Of course Valancy finds peace, beauty, freedom, and eventually True Love. There are some issues with this book; I find the first third, when she is cowed by her family, a little too long and dreary, and sometimes the snark is a bit edgy. And there are moments in the rest of the book where it tinges on purple prose that is a little rich. But the story is entertaining, Valancy and Barney are a satisfying couple, and the setting is lovely. The town of Deerwood is a fictional location but is based on Bala, where Montgomery spent some time. The Muskoka landscape is a big part of this novel, and it's thoroughly drawn.

Every Montgomery fan needs to read this, and those looking for a charming Canadian novel with the flavour of a century ago will also enjoy. Perfect comfort reading for me. 

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

People From My Neighbourhood


People From My Neighbourhood / Hiromi Kawakami
translated from the Japanese by Ted Goossen
NY: Granta, c2020
121 p.

This is a short book, told in short vignettes, and it is what it says -- stories of all the people from the neighbourhood of the narrator. 

It starts out pretty normal, just quick sketches of people doing fairly normal if quirky things. But then it starts getting weirder and you're wondering what the narrator is doing. Is she delusional? The tone is matter-of-fact but the people and the occurrences that are shared are stranger and more unlikely with each story.

When we get to the town being cut out of time for a while, or an apartment block seceding from the town and setting up their own fiefdom, or the visitation of a god of some sort -- we can see we are in weird territory. The stories can feel mythical, or macabre. There are 26 stories, and some feel dark, while others are just a bit more magical. There are recurring characters who tie things together, primarily the narrator and her friend's sister. 

I found this book a bit odd; I didn't really know what I was getting into! I liked the idea of it, and there were some of the short pieces that I enjoyed but others that were mystifying. I'm not sure it's one I'd go back to, even though the structure and concept is really clever. But if you're wanting something unusual that will shake up your perceptions a little, this might be it. 

This was a nominee for the Shirley Jackson award, and I think that if you're familiar with Shirley Jackson, you'll get a good sense of where this book is trying to go. Intriguing even if I didn't love it. 

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Honeybees and Distant Thunder

Honeybees & Distant Thunder / Riku Onda
trans. from the Japanese by Phillip Gabriel
London: Doubleday, 2023, c2016.
423 p.

This was an unusual read, quite different from some of the darker or stranger Japanese books that I've read recently. It's set during a high-level international piano competition in Japan, and focuses on four of the competitors over the course of the two week competition.

Aya was a child prodigy who left performance when her mother died but is now tentatively re-entering the professional milieu once again. Masaru is an American based Japanese pianist who is the upcoming star of the piano world - and unknown to both Masaru and Aya, he's also Mak-un, a childhood friend who will be reunited with Aya at the competition. 

And then there's Jin, a wildly original teenaged pianist who doesn't even own a piano. He travels around France with his beekeeping father, but was spotted by the late Maestro Von Hoffman and became a protegĂ©. 

Added to these three young people struggling to make their mark in an intense competition, we meet Akashi: he's older and married, working in a music store, but driven to try one more time to compete in the piano world. There's an "underdog" documentary being filmed about his journey, by an old friend who's now a filmmaker. 

As each of them throws themselves entirely into the competition we follow their development, both musically and internally. 

This book delves into the personal lives of each of these characters, but it's not about romance or quirky people interacting, it's really about Art and ambition and being true to a gift. There is a great deal of talk about the experience of playing in performance - how each one approaches their recitals, the visuals they imagine for their pieces, the universality of music and so on. There's discussion of particular classical composers and their pieces so if you know those pieces you can form your own opinions! Other characters like the judges also play a role in reflecting on the professional classical music world, its expectations and limitations, and the differences in how music is seen by various people in that world. This is a cerebral book as much as an emotionally driven one. 

Anyone who loves classical music should find this book absorbing. But there's also a lot of great content just about personal fulfillment, the meaning of a life, and art in general to appeal to a wider readership as well. I really liked it and enjoyed following the characters through their hothouse world of a prestige competition. 

Monday, September 11, 2023

The Lake


The Lake / Banana Yoshimoto
translated from the Japanese by Michael Emmerich
Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2011, c2005.
188 p.

Even though Women in Translation Month is now over, I was still reading some great books at the end of the month. I have taken a few days off of reviewing but I now have to catch up and share some of these fabulous reads. 

This one is another novel by an old favourite, Banana Yoshimoto. It's also a bit more strange than we usually get from her. It features two young, disaffected people; a female artist and a man about her age who she meets after they watch each other from their apartment windows for a while. 

They become friends of a sort, in a kind of relationship, despite the issues that he seems to suffer from. She slowly discovers more about his past, and realizes that he's had a traumatic event in his childhood. It's connected to a cult that kidnapped him and other children, which he eventually managed to escape from (this is loosely inspired by the real-life Aum Shinrikyo cult). 

They go together to visit two very strange siblings who live by The Lake, a pair that were in the same cult as he was - a difficult step for him to take. These siblings are tiny, mystical, and odd, and their influence permeates the lives of our two Tokyo based characters. The girl gets a commission for a large mural on a school wall, and uses her experience at The Lake to inspire her images. And slowly the relationship between the two grows and solidifies. 

It's a bit of an eerie, darker read in some ways, but it takes trauma seriously and lets the characters develop slowly. There are uncanny elements but you see how the story ties everything together, and gives a sense of growth and uplift in the end. I found it interesting, different, and memorable, even if not quite my favourite of her works so far. 

Friday, September 08, 2023

Spell the Month in Books: September


I just discovered this readerly link-up, Spell the Month in Books (hosted every month by Reviews From the Stacks) It reminds me of the early days of blogging when there were all kinds of memes and challenges making the rounds. They are usually great fun, so I was happy to find this.

The theme for September is From Your TBR List, so I have a multitude of choices! And I decided to join in. The rules are very simple – spell the current month using the first letter of book titles, excluding articles such as ‘the’ and ‘a’ as needed. Happy September!

S - The Silence of Scheherezade / Defne Suman

E - The End of August / Yu Miri

P - The Premonition / Banana Yoshimoto

T - The Twilight Zone / Nona Fernandez

E - The Eighth Life / Nino Haratischwili

M - Medusa / Martine Desjardins

B - Babbacombe's / Susan Scarlett

E - Expiation / Elizabeth von Arnim

R - Rhododendron Pie / Margery Sharp 

Thursday, August 31, 2023

#WITMonth 2023 Wrap-up


And that's a wrap for this year's Women in Translation Month! I really enjoyed reading and sharing so many great titles this year. I also found another batch of titles to add to my TBR thanks to reviews and publisher's highlights as well.

The most unusual language I read from this year was Montenegrin, while the most common was Ukrainian, and then Japanese. I love reading all these different books and seeing reviews out there highlighting things I might have missed in my own reading of a book. 

Women in translation matter all year round, of course, and it's important to keep reading them. I have a few titles that I've finished and will post my reviews shortly, carrying this over into September. And do take a look at the Women in Translation website, to find out more about this project, why it's done and why it matters, and what you can do to both read along and encourage more books by women to be translated. 

I also have a stack of books to keep going with, the first is a few books that I've had for quite a while and meant to get to this month, and the second are titles I seem to have purchased throughout the month, because of course I never have enough ;)