One Italian Summer

Rating: ⭐⭐.5
Author: Rebecca Serle
Genres: Fiction, Romance
Pub. Date: Mar. 2022 (read Mar. 2022)

This book was a bit of a bummer for me. I’ve seen some really excellent (and some not so excellent) reviews, so I was a bit on the fence, but impulsively decided to give it a go. The book did improve throughout, but I knew almost as soon as I started reading it that I wasn’t going to love it.
One Italian Summer tells the story of 30 year old Katy Silver, who has just lost her mother to cancer and has in turn, lost a piece of herself. Her Mom was her best friend and she doesn’t know how to move on without her. The two women were supposed to take a trip to Positano, Italy together, a place that was special to her mother Carol, but unfortunately she passes away before the trip and Katy decides to go to Italy alone to try and heal her broken heart. However, while in Positano, something magical happens and the 30 year old version of Carol stumbles into Katy’s holiday, bringing truths to light that Katy never realized about her mother.

It’s a book about love and grief, so I was ready for an emotional and moving read, but sadly, the writing style just didn’t work for me. I don’t want to totally slam on the book because I can see how some people might love this, Serle definitely crafts a very vivid portrayal of Italy in her writing, but the style was so straight forward and matter of fact that I was left feeling like I was reading a dull travel diary rather than the emotional, grief-stricken self discovery story that I was hoping for.

To put it simply, the writing is boring. Everything about this was a classic example of telling instead of showing. It’s overwritten and I thought we got so many details that were just unnecessary. If you’re looking for a good detailed itinerary of what to do in Positano, this is great, but I wanted to go on an emotional journey with Katy and that just wasn’t happening. I found it extremely hard to relate with Katy and the whole narrative was a bit insufferable. Everything about Positano is incredibly beautiful, from the scenery, to the sunsets, to the food, to the luxury hotels – so it’s hard to empathize with a bunch of faux-sad white people living a dream holiday. We’re told about Katy’s grief, but we don’t really experience it. 

It also comes down to Katy being a pretty unlikeable character. There’s nothing wrong with a good unlikeable character, but Katy is not intentionally unlikeable. I believe we’re supposed to like and empathize with her, but it’s very hard because she seems totally unaware of her privilege and it’s hard to buy that a 30-year old woman would be this out of touch with reality. One of the key themes is centered around how Katy and Carol are best friends and Katy’s discovery that, surprise, her mother actually had a life before and outside of her. She’s shocked by this 30 year old version of her mother and spends so much time in awe of the ways in which her mother is both the same and different. I’m sorry, but what 30 year old woman is unable to imagine that their mother might have had a vibrant life before them? Plus I thought the whole my-mom-is-my-best-friend thing was a little tired.

A lot of women love their moms and would consider them a best friend. But come on, mother-daughter friendships are still going to be based on a totally different foundation than peer-to-peer friendships and I would it extremely unrelatable that Katy didn’t have ANY friends outside of her Mom and husband. She mentions one girlfriend in passing, but as far as I can tell, she has no other friends, so that’s probably why she’s so shocked to find out that her mother actually had a life before her. So mostly Katy just read as juvenile and bit dense to me.
The one thing I did like about this book though was the exploration of the erasure of women through motherhood. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot as more and more of my girlfriends have children. I’ve been noticing that some of my friends almost seem to disappear into motherhood. They’re still them, but all of their passions and interests have become secondary to that of being a mother. Their children become their number one priority and personality. I’m not saying it’s necessarily a bad thing, I just personally find it very scary because I have a lot of things that I’m passionate about and the idea of losing or having to give up those things in motherhood is one of the primary reasons I delay it. Some people are able to find a good balance between being a mom and being a woman with your own dreams, but it seems it’s easy for who are before being a mother to get lost in the chaos of parenthood.

What Katy is grappling with more than anything is the loss of who she thought she was and the fear of having to suddenly be her own person. Her mom was a comfort to her because then she never had to think too hard and her suddenly realizing that her mother had her own hopes and dreams is scary for her. The realization that our parents can want things for themselves beyond the hopes and dreams they have for us. I don’t fault children for this, but it’s hard to watch a grown woman suddenly figuring this out.

The other issue I had with this book was with the romance. I won’t get into it to avoid spoilers, but I thought it was an interesting choice to give a married woman a love interest. We’re told Katy and her mother are best friends, but we’re not shown it. Likewise, we’re told at the beginning of the novel that things aren’t really working out between Katy and her husband, but we’re not told why and we’re definitely not shown it either. We’re just told that she’s so depressed over the loss of her mother that she has no interest in any of her other relationships, which is really only her marriage because she has no other friends.

Anyways, the only other thing I’ll say is that the book has a bit of a twist, which I thought was well done. I really should have seen it coming, but I didn’t. Unfortunately, none of the positives were really enough to outweigh the negatives and I wouldn’t recommend this book. But if you like it and Rebecca Serle’s writing, then all the more power to you! It did have some very evocative descriptions of Italy, but the writing style along with Katy’s immaturity make it a pass from me.

People We Meet on Vacation

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Emily Henry
Genres: Fiction, Romance
Pub. Date: May 2021 (read Mar. 2022)

So many people told me to read Beach Read, but I just had a feeling this was the one for me. I’m still planning to read Beach Read, but after a slew of enemies to lovers books recently, I really wanted to read one about friends to lovers because I had a sneaking suspicion I would really like it. And I did!

This book is a lot more subtle than some of the other romances I’ve read, but it’s the one that felt the most real to me. Poppy was a more relatable character – as sexy as the enemies to lovers trope was in books like The Love Hypothesis and The Spanish Love Deception (and as compelling as those plots were) – I do really think this is the better book. Every person I’ve ever loved has been my friend first and there’s something so lovely reading about two people that genuinely like each other. 

People We Meet on Vacation is about two friends, Alex and Poppy, and their relationship over the past 12 years. They’ve been friends for a long time and even though they live in different cities, they’ve always taken the time to travel together once a year… until something happens on their most recent trip and they don’t talk for 2 years. Poppy realizes she misses Alex and invites him to take one more trip with her, to which he agrees.

This book is subtle and I liked that about it. It’s not as quick paced as some of the other romance books I’ve read because the present day storyline is constantly interrupted to return to one of their past trips. This slowed the pacing down initially, but as you progress further into the book, you realize this friendship is not quite the relationship you thought it was. There is just as much romance in the development of their friendship, because it never really is just a friendship. Just-friends don’t bring this kind of complicated conflict into your other relationships and you can’t help but root for these two people to be together. 

I say this is a subtle book because it is also very much about loneliness and allowing people the space to say and be who they really are. Poppy and Alex recognize that love isn’t always the most important part in a relationship. Relationships are also about making the space for your partner to communicate their needs and being willing to compromise on your life together. That two individuals still need to take the time to work on their own shit before they can be what the other person needs. I felt like this had a lot more maturity and that they had the kind of solid foundation that a successful relationship would be built on.

I also liked that both characters were well developed and flawed. I really think Alex is one of the strongest love interests. To talk about romance we must acknowledge that they are primarily written by women, for women, and so the men are often a bit more fantasy than most of the men I’ve met in real life. We read romance for the escapism of it – because we are human and we want to read emotional stories about people falling in love. But so many of the men are almost so perfect in their love for the protagonist they become caricatures. Alex felt very real, like someone I could honestly fall in love with myself. He’s quiet and a bit weird. He has anxieties and he’s afraid to put himself out there. He knows what he wants, but isn’t quite sure he deserves it and recognizes the ways in which he’s not willing to compromise. 

Likewise, Poppy is chasing after something she thinks she wants without realizing that it’s really that she’s running away from something instead. We’re sold this ideal and she thinks filling her life with travel and new people will make her happy – that it will compensate for the inadequacies she felt when she was younger. We all like to think our bullies go on to make nothing of themselves, but they are just flawed people too and we are only holding ourselves back by trying to prove ourselves to them later. If you make decisions based on the way you are perceived by someone else, you are still not living for yourself. Was it unrealistic that two friends could be so blind for so long? Maybe, but these two people wanted such drastically different things that I could believe it. 

It’s also a subtly sad book that made me reflect a lot. I really wasn’t sure if we were going to get a happy ending or not. I wish the author had dedicated a bit more time to the ending because she introduced several new themes in the last 50 pages about self care and compromise, that I really would have loved to see explored further. So overall I really liked this book, perhaps even more than The Love Hypothesis. I did rate that one higher because it was so compelling and I couldn’t put it down, but I do think this is the better story. The other books I read were that fun, all-consuming love, this was gentler, but it also felt a lot more real. It’s nice to get swept up in a love story, but it’s also nice to sink into one, and that’s what I feel like I did with this one.  

Park Bagger

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Marlis Butcher
Genres: Non-Fiction, Memoir
Pub. Date: Apr. 2021 (read May 2021)

Congratulations to Marlis Butcher for having visited every National Park in Canada! That is an amazing accomplishment and I very much enjoyed reading about it.

I really liked how the book is organized by region, with an entry for every National Park. It makes it easy to reference if you just want to read about a specific park or region, though it does make some sections a little bit tedious. I honestly had no idea how many national parks Canada has in the north of the country. It makes sense because many of the parks are dedicated to the preservation of wildlife and wildlife habitat. Many of the parks are difficult to access and in some cases, Marlis is one of a very limited number of visitors. A lot of the parks aren’t set up for tourism and Marlis brings a keen sense of adventure to every park she visits, many of which are not for the faint of heart!

I loved reading about these remote parks because each one was very much its own unique expedition for Marlis, with lots to write about it terms of gear, itinerary, terrain, wildlife, and activities. The many smaller parks of the provinces do start to blend together after a while though. Because of size and accessibility, her trips to many of these parks were shorter, leaving less of interest to write about, so I did find some of these sections a bit slow, but still enjoyed the opportunity to learn about every park.

Marlis is a good writer, she’s not a great writer, but I don’t expect her to be. The idea of this memoir is to share about her unique experience in our park system, so I never expected this to be a literary masterpiece and she does a good job. I would definitely recommend this to nature lovers and really enjoyed the experience of visiting every park in Canada through Marlis’ eyes!

Beyond the Trees

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Adam Shoalts
Genres: Memoir, Non-Fiction
Pub. Date: Oct. 2019 (read Sep. 2020)

I have a bit of a backlog of reviews to write, but I decided to start with Adam Shoalts’ book, Beyond the Trees, because it’s the one that stands out the most in my memory. 

Adam Shoalts is a Canadian adventurer that had his 15 minutes of fame when he discovered a waterfall canoeing the Hudson Bay lowlands that wasn’t shown on any maps. From there he landed a job as Explorer in Residence with the Canadian Geographic Society, which pretty much sounds like the coolest gig in the world to me. 

In honour of Canada150 in 2017, he decided to do something extraordinary and canoe his way across the entire arctic circle in one summer. Now that sounds pretty wild to me already, but it reality, it’s even more wild than it sounds. There’s no obvious river that follows along the entire arctic circle, so Shoalts created his own 4000 km route across the great white north, canoeing dozens of rivers, many kilometers of portaging, and even canoeing across Great Bear Lake. And he did all of this solo.

Nothing makes me happier than exploring the great outdoors, so everything about this book enthralled me. What I liked most about the book was the realization that Canada still has so much unexplored and uninhabited wilderness. There’s really no where else in the world you could go where you could travel 4000km and only see about a half dozen people throughout 4 months. It really was just Adam and his canoe and the great wildness of the north.

Now upon reading this, it immediately becomes evident that Shoalts is not your average adventurer. It was easy to think from the outset that he was just a normal guy with big ideas, but don’t be fooled, he is a very experienced outdoorsman. He starts off by hiking 300km up the Dempster highway in Yukon in like 6 days and then proceeds to beat every single distance expectation he sets for himself on the trip, arriving early to each milestone. 

He starts his canoe adventure on the Mackenzie River and we are shocked to find out that not only does he plan to canoe 4000km, he plans to paddle more than half of it upriver. That’s right, more than half of his journey was against the current and in some rivers, against rocks and rapids. He travels using a number of different techniques, sometimes paddling, sometimes poling (using a long stick to push upriver against the bottom), sometimes dragging the canoe with a rope from the shore, and of course, portaging. A few times he even rigs up a little sail to his canoe to propel him upstream when the wind is behind him.

All in all, the journey takes him from the end of May to early September. He had to time the trip to leave right after the ice flows broke up in the river and planned to arrive at Great Bear Lake once the ice had broken up there as well. Unfortunately, it was a late spring and he had the added challenge of fighting against the ice on several parts of his journey.

Anyways. I don’t want to give it all away, but it’s safe to say this book captivated me. I can’t really pinpoint exactly why, his writing is pretty straightforward and honestly it’s not very introspective, so it was really just how incredible this journey was that propelled me through the book. I could see it not being for everyone, there’s a lot of descriptions of paddling and portaging that could get tedious. Plus I wish he’d spent a little more time on self reflection, but even still, I loved the book. I read complaints on his other book that he came across as really arrogant, I did not get that vibe at all in this book and actually thought him reasonably humble, so it seems like something he’s working on since his last book.

His journey was a real test of endurance and I have to conclude that Adam may be part machine to have undertaken it so quickly. It’s amazing to think of so much untouched wilderness. Thanks to Adam for sharing it with us!

The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Dan Gemeinhart
Genres: Middle Grade, Fiction
Pub. date: Jan. 2019 (read Nov. 2019)

Middle Grade is such an underrated genre and there are so many quality books out there. Even though I generally enjoy it, I don’t read that much middle grade unless it’s by an author I already know and like, but I always pick something out from the Goodreads Choice Awards every year to read in November. The book that appealed to me most in the long list was The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise, which I was pleased to see also made it into the shortlist.

Coyote has been travelling America with her dad, Rodeo, in a refurbished school bus for the last 5 years. They’ve been having a great time exploring all over the country, but there is a certain loneliness that comes with always being on the move. Coyote is 12 years old, but she hasn’t really developed any lasting friendships and the only ongoing relationship she has is with her grandma, who she calls once a week on Saturday.

Coyote and Rodeo never talk about it, but they share a secret; they’re both trying to outrun the grief of having lost 3 other family members 5 years prior. The entire topic of their family is a “no-go” with Rodeo and Coyote is fine to go along with that, until she receives a call from her Grandma that really makes her want to return to her hometown, and in a hurry. But she knows Rodeo would never go for it and deceives him on a separate mission that will take them in close proximity to their old home. They’re both on a journey they don’t even really know they’re on and along the way they pick up some individuals who finally start to challenge their lifestyle and make them confront the demons they’ve been running from for 5 years.

It’s a book about grief, but the author balances the story with lots of humour and fun characters. Coyote has a lot of spunk and I loved how the cast of characters kept growing with each new plan Coyote hatches to try and get her closer to home. I love how children’s lit is able to tackle such emotional themes without being dark or upsetting, while also being super perceptive and comforting. Coyote still struggles with losing her mother and sisters, but it’s Rodeo who is really running away from the past. I liked that it’s a book about how a young girl deals with her grief, but also about how she helps her father to finally deal with his grief too.