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Eleanor & Park – by Rainbow Rowell

November 2, 2013

eleanorparkThis is a novel for teens but I thought it was fun to read and recommend it for adults looking for a sweet, page-turning romance. It’s set in 1986. Eleanor is new at school and while she knows she’s different, she is used to not fitting in. She sits next to Park on the bus, and their friendship begins when he notices her reading his comics and he brings her some to take home. Their unlikely friendship eventually turns into a sweet, intense romance as only a first high school romance can be. But Eleanor can’t let her family know – her abusive step father would forbid her to see Park, or worse, kick her out of the house (again). And Park has some anxieties when he invites her home for the first time, since she’s not the kind of girl his mother would pick out for him. These complications, among others, bring challenges to the relationship.

Eleanor & Park is sweet and gritty, and a great read. I especially loved the 1980s setting; the author includes many details about clothes and music that really set the scene. I was hesitant to read a teen romance (who wants to relive high school?!), but this one is not what I expected and I enjoyed it.

An inquiry into love and death – Simone St. James

October 28, 2013

love and death

A page-turner of a ghost story set in a seaside English town in the 1920s. When her uncle Toby dies under suspicious circumstances, Oxford student Jillian Leigh travels to Rothewell to identify the body and pack up his things. It turns Toby is a ghost hunter and when Jillian arrives, very strange and creepy things start happening. Then a handsome Scotland Yard detective shows up looking into his death and Jillian starts her own investigation by getting to know the neighbours in this small, mysterious village. And she can’t stop thinking about the detective either. I really enjoyed this novel – it is an intriguing story with perfect atmosphere, great pacing, and a great set of characters. It was pretty creepy though – I couldn’t read it at night! 

Into the abyss – by Carol Shaben

October 23, 2013

into-the-abyssAn interesting book about a commuter plane crash that happened in Northern Alberta in the 1980s. Six passengers died but four men survived the crash: a politician (the author’s father), the pilot, an RCMP officer, and the criminal he was escorting; the experience changed each of their lives significantly. The criminal was the least injured and without him, the others wouldn’t have survived the night.

The story of the crash and the night the survivors spent together waiting for rescue makes great reading. Shaben’s exploration of the commuter aircraft industry and the public inquiry into the crash is less riveting but it was still interesting to learn about bush pilots, an occupation that ranks in the top three of the world’s most dangerous professions. 

This book won the 2013 Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction, administered by Wilfrid Laurier University.

The Orenda

October 7, 2013

orenda

It has been a long time since I read a 500-page novel in two days, but I couldn’t put this one down (fortunately, one of those days was a day off). This latest novel by Joseph Boyden, author of Three Day Road, is excellent.

For those two days, I was immersed in early 17th-century Canada, before it was Canada, at a time when Samuel de Champlain had established the French settlement at Quebec City and was exploring around the Great Lakes, when Jesuit missionaries were trying to bring Christianity to the ‘heathens’, and the Iroquois were at war with the Huron nations . . .

In The Orenda, three narrators tell the story; Christophe is a French Jesuit missionary; Snow Falls, a teenaged girl, is a member of the Haudensaunee nation (Iroquois) who has been kidnapped by the Wendats (Huron); and Bird is a Wendat warrior eager to avenge the deaths of his wife and daughters at the hands of the Iroquois. These three characters come together at the beginning and despite their radical differences remain tied to each other. Bird wants to keep Christophe around so the Wendat can learn the ways of these strange “crows.” And he also wants to adopt Snow Falls as his daughter even though she is of the enemy. Snow Falls resists for a long time, but eventually starts making herself at home among the Wendat.

There is a lot going on in the novel, with the tensions between the Huron and Iroquois heating up, the Jesuit mission on tenuous ground, sicknesses brought by the Europeans spreading among the Huron, plus the dynamics of Huron village life. Survival is not guaranteed for anyone. Boyden’s depiction of life among the Huron is fascinating, so detailed and vivid. The characters are complex as are the situations they face and the decisions they must make.

I think everyone (at least, every Canadian) should read this novel, though as a warning, there are several gruesome scenes of torture and warfare. I winced and wanted to shut my eyes while reading at times. I remember a similar feeling reading Boyden’s Three Day Road, his novel about two Cree soldiers in World War I (also an excellent read).

The Orenda has been long-listed for the 2013 Scotia Bank Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award for fiction. I haven’t read any of the other novels on the lists, but I hope Boyden wins the prize for this amazing novel. I can’t say enough. Read this book!

A quality of light – by Richard Wagamese

October 7, 2013

quality of lightI was talking with some of my colleagues about Ragged Company by Richard Wagamese, this year’s One Book One Community pick, and several of them agreed that this was not his best book. I was intrigued, because I thought Ragged Company was wonderful. After reading A Quality of Light, though, I have to say I agree; I liked this book even better.  The story is of a different type, more reflective and maybe a bit less intriguing than Ragged Company. Yet Wagamese’s talent to craft a story shines through more strongly, I think, in A Quality of Light. Or maybe it’s the material he’s conveying that for him, lends itself to powerful writing. Many times reading this book I was struck by his ability to put moments and deep feelings into words. Now that I think about it, with this book, Wagamese reminds me of Wendell Berry in a way.

This is the story of Joshua and Johnny, two very different boys who become blood brothers as boys in the 1960s and the bond remains despite many strains to their relationship as they grow up. Later in life, Joshua is a pastor, married and living near where he grew up, when he gets a call from a police officer: Johnny has taken hostages and created an armed standoff at an Indian Affairs office, and is he asking for Josh. As he prepares to meet with Johnny, Joshua recounts his childhood and youth and his friendship with Johnny.  Joshua was born Ojibway but adopted by a white farming couple in Bruce County; Johnny moves into town with his alcoholic father and the boys bond over learning how to play baseball. Joshua’s loving parents raise him with their Christian beliefs and traditional values, which Joshua wholeheartedly embraces; Johnny learns more and more about native issues in Canada and longs to become Indian and fight for justice. When they start high school, a violent incident brings Josh’s Ojibway background to the forefront and he begins to learn about this side of himself, while also becoming a member of his church – something Johnny does not understand.

The novel is not only an interesting story, but as I mention above, it is a powerful piece of fiction. I would definitely recommend this book, and I’ll leave off with a couple of my favourite passages; hopefully they will illustrate what I’m trying to say above about the author’s ability to express moments and feelings.

“So we looked for magic that summer. We found it in the wood duck chicks we watched feather and grow and fly, in the way the light diffused and colored on its way through the depths of our diving hole on Otter Creek, in the feel of a cow’s teats when you milk by hand and in the taste of the wind redolent with rain . . . We learned that it’s possible to invent the world. All you ever need are eyes open to magic and mystery, ears attuned to the sublime and the marvelous, a heart desiring of more and a spirit gilded with an expectant joy.” (92)

“The Hockley Valley is lush and rich. Verdant. In the early autumn the display of colors is spellbinding. Interwoven through the dazzle are pastoral stretches of tilled land and abrupt rustic vistas. Here, a cobwebbed cabin reduced to crumble by the disdain of time. There, a sleepy farm anchored against a wooded hillside like a gnome’s cottage . . . The skreel of a swooping hawk, the whisper of the wind through the branches and the muted crunch of our feet against the roots and detritus of the forest floor punctuated the morning air like canticles. We were joined, Johnny and I, by an unspoken reverence for the omniscient hymnodist who’d composed it all. In such times language can surprise you with its irrelevance.” (231)

“Good-byes have a residue that you carry into everything that follows. It shows itself in peculiar places as your life and your world meander through their course. You’ll find it in the face you swear you recognize, the snatches of song through the window of a passing car, the sudden slam of a screen door in summer, the perfect stillness of a child in slumber . . . That’s the joy of living inhabited lives – the recurrence of the profound in the ordinary.” (248)

The 100-year old man who climbed out the window and disappeared – by Jonas Jonasson

October 4, 2013

jonassonThis best-selling Swedish phenomenon is worth a read. It’s an amusing tale about a Allan Karlsson, who on his 100th birthday decided he had enough of the Old Folk’s Home, went on his way and ended up on such an escapade, involving – among other things – an elephant, a hot-dog stand vendor, a corpse or two, and lots of vodka.  Before this adventure, Allan had many more over his long lifetime, including an enjoyable lunch with US President Truman, a not so enjoyable dinner with Stalin, comforting a youthful Kim Jong Il, and enjoying the fine life in Bali for 15-or-so years, and teaching both the US and Russia how to make the atomic bomb. As the book jacket states, his life is kind of like that of Forrest Gump. Except Allan is much more amusing and world-travelling, and drinks more vodka.  An enjoyable and witty read.

Claire of the sea light – by Edwidge Danticat

September 23, 2013

claireA lovely read about a little girl, Claire, who goes missing in a small seaside village in Haiti, and the difficult decision her father is facing. While he and others search for her, stories emerge of other people in their community whose lives are connected with Claire’s family in some way. These stories of loss and tragedy, as well as the thread of the sea, form the tapestry of this small community. I found the stories that make up the novel compelling and the characters interesting, with rich inner lives. Danticat, who is from Haiti, makes the work feel sort of like a fable, with some mystery and magic in the atmosphere; yet it is also an interesting window into life in Haiti: from poor fishermen struggling to make a living from the depleted oceans to the advent of gang violence to issues of class. Recommended!