Bessie’s Books and Other Things
Great reads seemed a little scarcer than usual in 2016. I have repeatedly heard from prolific readers that there hadn’t been as much good stuff this year. When I looked back at what I have read over 2016 I can see that there are fewer high rated titles but still enough to make the pursuit of that perfect book worthwhile.
My favourite read of the year was from Helen Simonson who gave us The Summer Before the War. It’s the summer of 1914 and life in the sleepy village of Rye, England is about to take an interesting turn. Agatha Kent, a force for progress, is expecting an unusual candidate to be the school’s Latin teacher: Beatrice Nash, a woman has never taught Latin at this school before. Agatha’s nephews, meanwhile, have come to spend the summer months, as always, both with dreams of their own: Daniel, the poet, to publish a literary journal in Paris, and Hugh, to graduate from medical studies and marry his surgeon’s daughter thus inheriting a lucrative practice. But then Hugh is sent to pick up Beatrice from the train station and life, of course, changes.
I listened to a wonderful young adult book on CD called What I Was by Meg Rosoff, a beautifully crafted and heart-achingly poignant coming-of-age tale that is set mainly in a hut on an isolated strip of land in East Anglia. The narrator is an older man who recounts the story of his most significant friendship with the nearly feral and completely parentless Finn, who lives alone in a hut by the sea. He idolizes Finn and spends as much time with him at the beachside hut as possible, hoping to become self-reliant and free instead of burdened by the boarding school dress code and curfew. But the contrast between their lives becomes ever more painful, until one day the tables turn and everything our hero believes to be true explodes with dire consequences.
The Haliburton County Public Library participates in the Evergreen award every year. With this award ten works of Canadian fiction, non-fiction, and short stories are chosen by a committee of the Ontario Library Association and library patrons have the chance to read them until October when they can vote for their favourite. One I really enjoyed from this list this year was Under the Visible Life by Kim Echlin. Fatherless Katherine carries the stigma of her mixed-race background through an era that is hostile to her and all she represents. It is only through music that she finds the freedom to temporarily escape and dream of a better life for herself. Orphaned Mahsa also grows up in the shadow of loss, sent to relatives in Pakistan after the death of her parents. Struggling to break free, she escapes to Montreal but eventually she finds herself forced into an arranged marriage. For Mahsa, too, music becomes her solace and allows her to escape from her oppressive circumstances. When Katherine and Mahsa meet, they find in each other a kindred spirit as well as a musical equal, and their lives are changed irrevocably.
All three of these books were satisfying reads for different reasons. Even in a lean reading year there is bound to be something you can find to enjoy, especially if you are willing to venture across genres and format types. All the books mentioned are available in one way or another at the Haliburton County Public Library.
*Originally published in County Life on December 1, 2016.