What I Read – February 2018

2018 has obviously not been a great year for book reviews thus far but I am sneaking in lots of reading time. Here’s what I read in February and the quickest reviews I can manage at this moment:

The Hut Builder – Laurence Fearnley (Penguin Books, 2010

New Zealand novel. I likely would have abandoned this one partway through if it hadn’t been a gift. Quite frankly, I found this one boring and the characters uninteresting.

Night Film – Marisha Pesl (Random House, 2014)

Definitely creative. Fairly creepy. Character development and voice, etc are fairly limited but the mystery at the heart of the novel will keep you reading.

Rest, Play, Grow – Deborah MacNamara (Aona Books, 2016)

I hope to find the time to write a more detailed review of this parenting book because it’s been hugely helpful to me. I highly recommend this to parents of toddlers.

What every young child would tell us if they could is to please hold on to them, to not take their actions personally, and to love them despite their immaturity.

  • Deborah MacNamara, Rest Play Grow

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress – Day Sijie (Anchor Books, 2002) (translated from the French by Ina Rilke)

Easy read. Nothing terrible but nothing amazing here.

The Professor and the Madman – Simon Winchester (Harper Perennial, 1999)

Fascinating read if you’re interested in history and/or language and/or dictionaries.

The Weight of Glory – C.S. Lewis (Harper Collins, 2001)

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

  • C.S. Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?”

Collection of sermons by Lewis. I always enjoy Lewis’ work, whether fiction or non. His perspective and wisdom are endlessly valuable.

It is written that we shall “stand before” Him, shall appear, shall be inspected. The promise of glory is the promise, almost incredible and only possible by the work of Christ, that some of us, that any of us who really chooses, shall actually survive that examination, shall find approval, shall please God.

  • C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory”

Moonglow – Michael Chabon (Harper Collins, 2016)

Pseudo-memoir of the author’s grandparents. Or is it? What’s fact and what’s fiction here? And does it matter when it’s well written and fun to read? 20th century history, World War II, space race, and a giant snake.

Indian Horse – Richard Wagamese (Douglas & McIntyre, 2012)

Why did it take me so long to read this book? Beautiful and heartbreaking. Every Canadian should read this book. And if you’re not Canadian you should read it too.


The Silmarillion – j.R.R. Tolkien

…there were green things even among the pits and broken rocks before the doors of hell.

  • J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion

When I Was a Child I Read Books – Marilynne Robinson


My current reading habits mean I generally have three books on the go. The first is a classic that needs a decent amount of focus to be read. (Example: The Silmarillion) I read this in the evening after the girls are in bed. The second is something of a thoughtful nature, usually non-fiction, maybe something religious in nature. (Example: essays by Marilynne Robinson) The third is a more compulsive read. Almost always fiction, hopefully paperback. Something that I can read in the middle of the night while struggling to stay awake and feed a baby. (Just finished Indian Horse and will probably start The Night Circus tonight since I got it from the library today.)

What are your reading habits like? How many books do you typically have on the go? How do you decide what to read and when?


Book Review: Your Heart is the Size of Your Fist by Martina Scholtens


Your Heart is the Size of Your Fist – Martina Scholtens (Brindle & Glass, 2017)

My brother, who knows the author, gave me a copy of Your Heart is the Size of Your Fist, for my birthday. My big brother and I have similar taste a lot of the time, especially in books and music, and he’s one of the smartest people I know so I’m always happy to receive a new book from him. This memoir from a Vancouver doctor did not disappoint.

Martina Scholtens details her years working as a doctor for refugees in the heart of Vancouver. I grew up in Vancouver, spending most of my childhood and my adolescence in East Vancouver and, in fact, I once lived not far from Scholtens’ clinic. The Vancouver of my childhood was diverse and multicultural and complicated and this is mirrored in Scholtens’ experience. She worked exclusively with refugees in their first year in Canada. These are obviously people with complex backgrounds and traumas both physical and psychological. Scholtens is compassionate and pragmatic and writes beautifully of her struggles to help her patients and the connections she makes along the way.

She uses her relationship with one particular family as a thread that weaves in and out of the book but this is more of a personal reflection than anything else. There are stories of many patients; some are funny, many are heartbreaking. There are personal reflections on Scholtens’ own life and her struggle to find balance as both a doctor and a mother to young children. For part of the book she is recovering from a miscarriage and then is pregnant again and her vulnerability in sharing these parts of her life spoke strongly to me. Comparisons are drawn between her own life and the lives of her patients in subtle ways, and always Scholtens is aware of her own privilege. Of the gentle life she returns to each day in Deep Cove, away from the fears and concerns of her patients.

I finished this book and wanted to recommend it to everyone I saw. (I’ve already loaned out my copy.) Working moms, doctors, therapists, immigrants, human beings. There is something here to speak to the heart of any human who lives among humans. This is a beautiful book.

What I Read – January 2018

For although a man is judged by his actions, by what he has said and done, a man judges himself by what he is willing to do, by what he might have said, or might have done – a judgment that is necessarily hampered, not only by scope and limits of his imagination, but by the ever-changing measure of his doubt and self-esteem.

– The Luminaries

One of my goals for 2017 was to read more classics. As such, I re-read The Power and the Glory, an amazing classic that I read several years ago but so many things in it felt like I was reading it for the first time. I’ve also (finally) begun to tackle The Silmarillion. I think my dad will be proud of me.

And, as always, I want to read more from my own library (Meaning read some of the stacks of books that I already own but have not yet read.) 84, Charing Cross Road, Rules of Civility, The Luminaries, Purple Hibiscus, and The Painted Girls all fit into that category.

I managed a couple of book reviews (titles are linked) but hope to do better in February. Feel free to share your favourite reads of the month in the comments!


  1. 84, Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff (Penguin Books, 1970)
  2. The War that Saved my Life – Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (Penguin Books, 2015)
  3. Rules of Civility – Amor Towles (Penguin Books, 2011)
  4. Your Heart is the Size of Your Fist – Martina Scholtens (Brindle & Glass, 2017)
  5. The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton (McClelland & Stewart, 2013)
  6. The Power and the Glory – Graham Greene (Penguin Books, 1979)
  7. Purple Hibiscus – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2012)
  8. The Painted Girls – Cathy Marie Buchanan (Harper Collins, 2012

There was silence all round him. This place was very like the world: overcrowded with lust and crime and unhappy love, it stank to heaven; but he realized that after all it was possible to find peace there, when you knew for certain that the time was short.

– The Power and the Glory

Currently Reading:

  1. Rest, Play, Grow – Deborah MacNamara
  2. The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien
  3. The Hut Builder – Laurence Fearnley

But Ilúvatar knew that Men, being set amid the turmoils of the powers of the world, would stray often, and would not use their gifts in harmony; and he said: “These too in their time shall find that all that they do redounds at the end only to the glory of my work.”

– The Silmarillion

*Friendly reminder that you can follow me on Instagram @karissareadsbooks if you’re into that sort of thing. Mostly pictures of what I’m reading as I’m reading and my kids.


Book Review: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton


The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton (McClelland & Stewart, 2013)

My main problem with The Luminaries was that it was too big. Not too long – I definitely could have read more from Catton. The book is over 800 pages and in hardcover it was just too large for me to hold with one hand. And since I do much of my reading these days while holding a baby, I wasn’t able to get through the novel as fast as I wanted to.

Seriously though, I enjoyed this book a lot. As with any book of this size there are definitely parts that could be edited down or reduced. However this is a well and thoughtfully-crafted novel. Catton fits a lot in and the form and pace of the novel is superbly done.

Set in the mid-19th century in a gold mining town in New Zealand (Who knew New Zealand had a gold rush? Not me and not anyone I mentioned it to.) the story opens on the day Walter Moody arrives in Hokitika. He unwittingly stumbles across a council of twelve unlikely men, meeting in secret to discuss recent events. A hermit has been found dead, his house filled with stashed gold. The town’s richest man has disappeared. A prostitute has apparently attempted suicide in the road. All in one day.

The twelve men lay out their tales to Moody, who has his own strange experience en route to Hokitika to add to the mystery. The first section of the novel outlines how these twelve came to meet together and steadily unfolds all the strange elements of this story and how a hermit, a rich man, and a prostitute might be connected. From there we move forward in time in the next couple of sections and then back to the previous year.

The story is complex and sometimes confusing. There is a hoard of gold that changes hands so many times through so many various means that I really had to concentrate to make sure I understand the plot. However, the characters are clear and unique, well-drawn and fascinating. Catton does well at introducing them in the first section and letting the reader see their various biases and influences. Each man is connected and implicated somehow and while this adds to the complexity it also makes the story all the more fascinating and the tension greater.

Some of the most interesting stories belong to two Chinese characters, Ah Quee and Ah Sook. While life in Hokitika and New Zealand at this time is hard and dirty and often degrading, this is most seen for these two men. Their stories are truly heart-breaking and a harsh reminder of racist attitudes held around the world in history. By contrast, the female characters are weaker. There are only two (and fair enough, this would not have been a welcoming place for most women) and they each fall into stereotypes in their own way, despite both being very important characters and each at the crux of the mystery.

The part of the novel that missed the mark for me was the astrological structure of it. Granted, I know nothing of astrology so the outlines and references to charts and signs was meaningless but it also never seemed to be explained within the context of the story. Towards the end, there is some suggestion of a more powerful and spiritual answer to some of the unanswered questions. There are tantalizing hints given that greater forces may be at work but this feels like something the author tiptoes to the edge of. By neither staying completely in the realm of realism or diving fully into the realm of the mystical, Catton weakens the solution she does provide and ended up frustrating this reader.

All in all though, a truly excellent novel.


Book Review: Rules of Civility by Amor Towles


Rules of Civility – Amor Towles (Penguin Books, 2011)

First things first, I liked Rules of Civility better than A Gentleman in Moscow, Towles’ first book and I think I’m in the minority in this opinion so I’ll explain why. Both novels are well written and Towles clearly excels at bringing historical time periods to life, whether that’s New York in the 1930s, as seen in Rules of Civility or Moscow in the 1920s, as in A Gentleman in Moscow. My main issue with Gentleman was that Count Rostov was too good at everything. He lacked any real flaws and thus never felt like a real person to me.

Rules of Civility is the story of a year in the life of Katey Kontent, a young working woman in New York in the late 1930s. Katey tells us the story herself, looking back from a vantage point of middle age. She is young, beautiful, a little poor but independent and hopeful. On New Year’s Eve, she and a friend meet a rich and handsome stranger and their three lives become intertwined in some unexpected (and some expected) ways.

This is a very American story. It is a story of how people can re-make themselves, how they can become something different from the generations before them. It’s also a story about what that might cost a person and whether or not the something new and different is better than what came before. There are obvious influences of The Great Gatsby here and Katey is a bit of a Nick Carraway figure as she tells the story of Tinker Grey. However, she is much more intimately involved in the tale than Nick was with Gatsby and this allows Towles to expand the world of the story and introduce other characters, some of whom act as counterpoints to Grey and the other upperclass types that Katey begins to mingle with as the novel and the year progresses. Katey also has her own history that informs the story and how she views those around her.

As in A Gentleman in Moscow, Towles seems to idealize a less than ideal time in history. There’s very little reference to the Depression or how that might affect characters (several of whom are bankers). The rich seem as rich as ever and the poor seem ever on the cusp of changing their lives, if they only want it enough. The story is interesting though and the characters compelling so I didn’t find myself questioning it much as I read. I felt that there was more depth here than in Towles’ second novel and it made me far more sympathetic to and interested in the characters.


Book Review: 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff


84, Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff (Penguin Books, 1970)

Generally speaking, I don’t enjoy books centred around bookstores. I find they tend to romanticize an experience I’ve known very well in the real, practical world. So I didn’t begin 84, Charing Cross Road with high hopes, despite the fact that it was recommended to me by a bookseller. In the end, it surprised me. This slim book compiles 20 years of letters between Hanff in NYC and Marks & Cohen Books in London. What begins as a search for books evolves into a friendship with friends that never meet.

This is less a book about books or even bookstores and more a book about people and how they can be drawn together despite physical distance and cultural divide. Helene is brash, sometimes funny, occasionally rude, and often big-hearted while her English penpals tend to be much more restrained. As the letters continue and the relationship grows though the individual personalities of the bookstore employees (and their families) come out in charmingly cheeky ways.

The book also offers a peek into life in London following World War Two. Helene begins to send packages to the bookstore for Christmas, giving her long-distance friends treats like tinned ham and fresh eggs, things that are not available in post-war England. The letters she receives in thanks are quite lovely, demonstrating the deep appreciation for her gifts and the beauty of generosity among strangers.



What I Read – 2017

My Favourite Reads of 2017:

Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien

The Break – Katherine Vermette

The Lonely Hearts Hotel –  Heather O’Neill

Silence – Shusaku Endo

All We Leave Behind – Carol Off

The Golden House – Salman Rushdie

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me – Sherman Alexie

The Good People – Hannah Kent

Bellevue Square – Michael Redhill

Barrelling Forward – Eva Crocker

Wonder – R.J. Palacio

The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey

Thoughts and Observations:

  • My total number for the year is 72. Which comes in slightly below last year’s 76 so I’m pretty pleased.
  • Last year included 5 re-reads and I didn’t have any this year, despite intending to re-read a couple of classics
  • Speaking of classics, I read very few this year. That’s a goal I’ve set for 2018. Including (maybe) Ulysses…
  • Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of my reading is Fiction (61 fiction versus 11 non)
  • More surprisingly to me, I read very few theological type books this year. My non-fiction tended to be memoirs in 2017.
  • Female authors won out again this year with the women pulling ahead by a larger majority. (I counted 41 women and 28 men. So I obviously missed a few but I’m not going to go back and re-count.)
  • It surprises me to see that the U.S. is so highly represented with 31 authors. Canada, which usually wins this round, comes in next with 21 authors.
  • Also represented are: England, Ireland, Japan, Nigeria, India, Scotland, Russia, New Zealand, Chile, Spain, and Australia.
  • That said, only three books this year were translated from other languages. This is a category I know I always need to work on.
  • Other numbers:
    • 3 books were mysteries
    • 3 books had more than 500 pages.
    • 10 books were short story collections
    • 1 book was on parenting (Expect this number to increase in future!)
    • 7 were young adult or middle grade books
  • I abandoned 5 books without finishing them. (I don’t count these in my overall total.) This is actually a fairly high number for me but I am becoming more selective as I get older/my reading time becomes more limited.
  • I reviewed all but 6 of my 2017 reads, a number I’m pretty proud of. I had a 100% success rate until mid-November. I’m going to blame Rose for the drop off but I am hoping to catch up in 2018.

The Complete List:

1. The SelloutPaul Beatty (Picador, 2015)

2. Reflections on the PsalmsC.S. Lewis (Harvest Book, 1958)

3. I Carried You Home – Alan Gibney (Patrick Crean Editions, 2016)

4. Beauty Plus Pity – Kevin Chong (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2011)

5. The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey (Regan Arthur/Back Bay, 2012)

6. When She Was Electric – Andrea MacPherson (Polestar, 2003)

7. Perfect Little World – Kevin Wilson (Harper Collins, 2017)

8. Such is My Beloved – Morley Callaghan (McClelland & Stewart, 1994)

9. Fates and Furies  – Lauren Groff (Riverhead Books, 2015)

10. The Conjoined – Jen Sookfong Lee (ECW Press, 2016)

11. Here I Am – Jonathan Safran Foer

12. Barrelling Forward – Eva Crocker (House of Anansi, 2017)

13. The Best Kind of People – Zoe Whittall (Anansi, 2016)

14. What is not Yours is not Yours – Helen Oyeyemi (Hamish Hamilton, 2016)

15. Eileen – Otessa Moshfegh (Penguin, 2015)

16. The Dark and Other Love Stories – Deborah Willis (Hamish Hamilton, 2017)

17. How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen – Joanna Faber & Julie King (Scribner, 2017)

18. The Break – Katherena Vermette (Anansi, 2016)

19. Garden of Eden – Ernest Hemingway (Scribners, 1986)

20. A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara (Doubleday, 2015)

21. The Dinner Party and Other Stories – Joshua Ferris (Little, Brown, 2017)

22. Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Knopf Canada, 2017)

23. The Unwomanly Face of War – Svetlana Alexievich (Random House, 2017)

24. Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien (Knopf Canada, 2016)

25. The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas (Balzer + Bray, 2017)

26. A Manual for Cleaning Women – Lucia Berlin (Farrar, STrauss and Giroux, 2015)

27. The Five Love Languages – Gary Chapman (Northfield Publishing, 1995)

28. Silence – Shusaku Endo (Picador Classic, 2015)

29. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman (Viking, 2017)

30. The Collected Stories – Grace Paley (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2007)

31. Holding Still For As Long as Possible – Zoe Whittall (Anansi, 2009)

32. Spoonbenders – Daryl Gregory (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017)

33. Trust No One – Paul Cleave (Upstart Press, 2015)

34. Everything was Good-Bye – Gurjinder Basran (Mother Tongue Publishing, 2010)

35. Harmless Like You – Rowan Hisayo Buchanan (Sceptre, 2016)

36. The Red Pony – John Steinbeck (Penguin Classics, 2009)

37. You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me – Sherman Alexie (Little, Brown and Company, 2017)

38. The Tennis Partner – Abraham Verghese (Harper Collins, 1998)

39. The Japanese Lover – Isabel Allende (Atria Paperback, 2015)

40. And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie (Cardinal Editions, 1960)

41. Autobiography – G.K. Chesterton (Hamish Hamilton, 1986)

42. The Lonely Hearts Hotel – Heather O’Neill (Harper Collins, 2017)

43. Stay With Me – Ayobami Adebayo (Knopf, 2017)

44. Meddling Kids – Edgar Cantero (Blumhouse Books, 2017)

45. Himself – Jess Kidd (Atria Books, 2017)

46. The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne (Hogarth, 2017)

47. The Bear and the Nightingale – Katherine Arden (Del Rey, 2017)

48. Teardown – Clea Young (Free Hand Books, 2017)

49. Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8 – Naoki Higashida

50. The Golden House – Salman Rushdie (Random House, 2017)

51. The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters: The Jolly Regina – Kara LaReau (Amulet Books, 2017)

52. The Good People – Hannah Kent (Little, Brown, 2017)

53. The Wind is not a River – Brian Payton (Ecco, 2014)

54. How to Breathe Underwater – Julie Orringer (Vintage, 2003)

55. All We Leave Behind – Carol Off (Random House Canada, 2017)

56. Lost in September – Kathleen Winter (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2017)

57. Bellevue Square – Michael Redhill (Doubleday Canada, 2017)

58. A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles (Viking, 2016)

59. The End We Start From – Megan Hunter (Hamish Hamilton, 2017)

60. Ghost Warning – Kara Stanley (Caitlin Press, 2017)

61. Winter’s Tale – Mark Helprin (A Harvest Book, 1983)

62. A Boys’ Treasury of Sea Stories (Paul Hamlyn, 1968)

63. The Lifters – Dave Eggers (Alfred A Knopf, 2018)

64. Wonder – R.J. Palacio (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012)

65. Beloved – Toni Morrison (Plume, 1998)

66. My Cousin Rachel – Daphne du Maurier (International Collectors Library, 1952)

67. Next Year For Sure – Zoey Leigh Peterson (Doubleday Canada, 2017)

68. See What Can Be Done – Lorrie Moore (Alfred A. Knopf, 2018)

69. Letters from Father Christmas – J.R.R. Tolkien (Harper Collins, 2015)

70. The Turn of the Screw and Other Short Novellas – Henry James (Signet Classic, 1962)

71. Late Nights on Air – Elizabeth Hay (Emblem, 2007)

72. The Whiz Mob and the Grenadine Kid – Colin Meloy (Balzer + Bray, 2017)

Books I Didn’t Finish:

The Travelers – Chris Pavone

Green Mansions – W.H. Hudson

Gork, the Teenage Dragon – Gabe Hudson

The Wonderling – Mira Bartok

The Beauty Myth – Naomi Wolf


What I Read – November 2017

The Lifters – Dave Eggers (Alfred A. Knopf, 2018)

Wonder – R.J. Palacio (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012)

Beloved – Toni Morrison (Plume, 1998)

My Cousin Rachel – Daphne Du Maurier (International Collectors Library, 1952)

Currently Reading:

See What Can Be Done – Lorrie Moore

Rest, Play, Grow – Deborah MacNamara

The Turn of the Screw and other short novels – Henry James

Next Year for Sure – Zoey Leigh Peterson


Book Review: Wonder by R.J. Palacio

Wonder – R.J. Palacio

I read Wonder and The Lifters back to back and so it’s hard not to compare them in my mind. While they are two very different books, they are geared toward the same age. The key difference that stands out to me in this regard though is that while The Lifters has an appeal likely limited to its intended audience, Wonder is a book that appeals to a broad spectrum of readers.

Wonder is an excellently written and compelling novel. While it’s written for a middle school aged audience, it kept me interested and eager to read more. The story focuses on Auggie, a fifth grader entering school for the first time after years of being homeschooled. Auggie was born with severe health issues, which have caused him to have some extreme facial deformities. He’s never interacted much with other kids; he’s a smart kid but knows he’s behind in the social sphere.

The novel moves between several different characters’ voices, some more closely connected to Auggie than others, and Palacio excels at capturing a variety of voices and perspectives. This enables the reader to get a pretty accurate and honest view of who Auggie is and how he appears to others. It also offers a very honest view of family life – both good and bad. We see how various families deal with life and their issues, how no family is quite perfect, how some families have quiet struggles below the surface. There is a lot of empathy here for how people end up being who they are.

I really appreciated how there’s no bad guy to this story. While there is one kid who sets himself up against Auggie and there is a somewhat dramatic showdown with some strangers at the end of the story, this isn’t a story about good and bad or overcoming evil. At the end of it all, Auggie still looks the same but he’s learnt a lot about life and so have some of the people around him. It’s realistic in the best possible way.


Book Review: The Lifters by Dave Eggers

The Lifters – Dave Eggers (Alfred A. Knopf, 2018)

I received an Advanced Readers Copy of this book, which will be released March 27, 2018.

Being a moderate fan of Dave Eggers I either avoid nor search out his work. I find him to be guilty of over-writing, which made me more curious how his style might translate to a book for young readers. (The intended audience here would be about ages 8-12.)

Gran (short for Granite, which is his name for some reason) and his family have just moved to the town of Carousel, a falling apart, hilly place, prone to sinkholes. The move isn’t a great one for his family and problems quickly arise. Gran starts a new school where he finds himself effectively invisible. As in, no one, including teachers, talks to him, He eventually makes a couple of friends, one being a man called The Duke who is maybe a janitor at the school? (I was never clear on whether or not his presence in the school was legitimate.) Gran also befriends a girl named Catalina who seems to have a secret. When Gran follows her one day he sees her disappear into the side of a hill and he begins to learn more of the history of Carousel.

The ideas and the plot in The Lifters are creative and unique and the novel touches gently on some larger ideas of happiness and community that could spark conversation with young readers. Or they can simply enjoy it as a mystery and adventure story.

As an adult reader, I found the book a bit too simplistic with a few too many questions and points left unanswered. I also found the chapters to be aggravatingly short with seemingly random chapter breaks but, again, I’m not a child.