books · Canadian books · summer

Summer Reading Reviews 2018

 

As another summer is swiftly coming to a close, I have been able to discover many new reads.  Above is a brief snapshot of a few selections that I have read this summer including a book completely found by accident.  Below are the reviews that I wrote for each book for my GoodReads account.  I tried to simplify by linking the URL but unsuccessfully so instead I have copied and pasted each of my reviews.

The Women of Brewster Place – Gloria Naylor

If you have ever read my other blog posts, you know I am a passionate reader of short stories.  This collection of seven stories was an accidental find in a school library this summer as I was proctoring exams at the end of the day.  I love it when a great book finds you!  These seven stories were both endearing and raw with some beautifully illustrated characters with varied life-experiences.  I loved how Naylor wove each woman into each of the other stories to bring us a picture of what and who Brewster Place was.

My favourite character in the seven stories was Mattie Michael.  Maybe because her story had the most information to her life as a young woman into her golden years.  I liked Mattie because she had grit, integrity and love in her even though the hand she was dealt in life was bitterly unfair.  Another character I quite liked was Kiswana Browne.  She was a character who really wanted to make a change for herself.  I felt she was an optimist in the face of great struggle and adversity.  The dynamic she has with her mother could be perceived as toxic but Naylor moves away from that when it is only goodness and love that Mrs. Browne wants for her daughter.  As the story evolves so does Kiswana as she tries to unite the complex and fight for the rights of the tenants.

The stories and woven so seamless into each other and even though there is a particularly violent scene in the book regarding one of ‘The Two”, it is a most necessary commentary on the time period and the perceived role of women within that society.  After I read that particular part of the book I felt a little sick because of the bare-stripped vulnerability of the character who is violently assaulted and left for dead.  She comes alive in a rage only to end another life.  Those scenes in books are never easy to read.  My impression was Naylor was trying to say many things through the character Lorraine and that horrific scene: that people can loose their humanity in an instant, that violence is still used to obtain power, that women are forever objectified in not just novels but other mediums, that people hate what they do not want to understand.

This was Naylor’s first novel but she writes so vividly with characters of various backgrounds and life experiences that it creates a wildly enchanting novel of women’s voices.

Pat of Silver Bush – L.M. Montgomery

I just adore L.M. Montgomery so it was great to read about Patricia Gardiner. A wonderful dreamy character who is fiercely loyal to her beloved Silver Bush and her family. A wonderful coming of age story about life on P.E. Island. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel to enjoy more adventures of Pat, Judy, Jingle, McGinty the dog and Gentleman Tom the wise cat. It was so lovely to read from my favourite childhood author again.

IMG_5130

Mistress Pat – L.M. Montgomery

L.M. Montgomery’s follow-up to her charming tale of Pat of Silver Bush is a fairly good sequel. Many of the characters come back into the story including one of my favourites, Judy Plum and all her wild tales along with cats Bold-and-Bad and Gentleman Tom. Montgomery also includes a new character in Tillytuck who comes to help Long Alec as a farmhand but becomes one of the family with his pet, Just Dog. He is a rival storyteller to Judy’s tales and adds some warm and depth to the story as a whole.
The story continues to focus on Pat as she grows older and her constant stream of “beaus” who she steadily rejects one after another. The character of Rae grows up quite a bit in this story and almost becomes the voice of reason where Pat is concerned. Montgomery is still a fantastic storyteller with vivid and descriptive language through the story although I liked the magic of the first book the best. Readers of the first book will like this sequel because it ties up many loose ends and character storylines which will leave the reader possibly unsatisfied or joyous depending on which “beau” you hoped Pat would end up with if anyone.

Elliot – Julie Pearson

Thank you to my local bookseller @epicbookshamilton for ordering Elliot for me. It is really tough to find books about foster care which is a topic close to my heart.  Having read many non-fiction books about adoption and foster care, I was looking for something better to share with my foster son.  I found this book accidentally during a Google search and was able to order it through my local bookseller.  I was not disappointed.

It is a great story and approach to what happens to a child who is placed into care.  The system is not always easy to navigate but here the author shows us what it is like to be in care from the point of view of Elliot a little rabbit whose parents have been struggling to take care of him.  He meets different families as he moves from one family to another and sometimes back to his birth-parents.  He navigates the system with his worker Thomas.  Further, the book has some beautiful illustrations by Manon Gauthier who uses collage illustrations in the story.

At the end of the story Elliot is finally placed with his forever, forever home.  This story has really resonated with my family because this is our personal situation.  We are hopeful to be our foster son’s forever, forever family but the system can be very unpredictable.  This is a necessary book. Children in care get forgotten and their experiences are so vastly different from other children.  This book gives them some hope, some understanding and something to look forward to as they try to work out all their feelings.  I highly recommend this book and it should be in all social workers’ tool boxes.

Frog Music – Emma Donoghue

Having attending a writers festival back in June (Alice Munro Festival of the Short Story), I was able to purchase this novel by acclaimed author Emma Donoghue. Frog Music was an unexpected gem. I have always had a soft-spot for historical fiction and this story intrigued me from the start. Although the novel is classified as a crime novel, it has so much more in it. The characters are both likeable and loathsome. When I first met Blanche, I was unsure whether to cheer for her or not. However, Donoghue’s protagonist grows on the reader as she works to solve the mystery of her friend’s Jenny Bonnet’s murder.

This is a story that is based on real people and events in 1876 San Francisco. The gunslinging is real, the baby farms are real as are many of the characters and events in the story. I loved that Donoghue wrote both women in such different ways. Jenny is a freewheeling, pants wearing, bicycling riding, frog catcher who defies convention at every possible turn. When the reader first meets Blanche she fits a stereotypical role of fragile heroine but that image is soon shattered as she finally finds her voice; her voice to avenge her friend, find her child and leave a sordid life behind her.

The novel also has an afterword which many readers are tempted to skip but this one is worth reading as Donoghue fills in many of the pieces as to why she wrote the book and various links of both history and music that accompany the story. She also includes a detailed French glossary to help the reader decipher the French through the story.

It was a most fascinating read this summer.

Braving the Wilderness – The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone – Brene Brown

Having read other books by Brene Brown, I was looking forward to this one, but it was just okay. She has some really great starting points but I thought there would be more development in each chapter. She tackles the reality of what is happening in much of the world today specifically the U.S. as she is an American writer, but I think she missing some points.

This book came to me at the right time considering all her chapter titles; specifically I am thinking about Chapter Five: Speak Truth to Bullshit. Be Civil. In this chapter she points out the old argument of you’re either with us or against us. This is highly topical in today’s world. However she also asks the reader to challenge lies and most pass either/or situations into more critical thinking.

This book does speak to the collapse of true communication and what it means to belong in a society and how that challenges people to be more vulnerable and uncomfortable, yet finding that true sense of self. Brown has many good starting points in the book but something is missing.

I did appreciate her inclusion of many researchers and well respected individuals in various fields as she included both interviews, quotes and shared theories from these people. I admire her wanting to take on such a difficult topic that does need to be addressed in our ever-changing society but something was missing for me in the end.

The Blue Castle – L.M. Montgomery

Clearly I had a fascination with one of my favourite childhood authors L.M. Montgomery this summer.  It was very interesting to go back and read from this author from the perspective as a adult.  Perhaps next summer I will re-read all the Anne books.

This novel started in a horribly depressing way when the reader meets the protagonist Valancy who has really never taken any chances at all including falling in love.  Her mother is horrid along with the cousin that lives with her.  Long before society identified verbal abuse, it is clear that this is that fate of Valancy while she continues to live with her mother.  Finally chance intervenes when she is diagnosed with a fatal heart condition.  She tells no one of this as she extended clan is just a terrible as her mother.  They are truly unlikable characters who treat Valancy as less-than human on some occasions.

As she throws caution to the wind, she becomes involved with Barney who is deemed as dangerous by the rest of the town. In Montgomery’s typical fashion she creates some greatly visual characters during Valancy’s transformation. The story is both tragic and triumphant as Valancy finally finds herself after a lifetime of searching. A great book for those who love romantic writers like Montgomery.

Alice Munro · books · Canadian books · Canadians · short story · Uncategorized

New Canadian Authors to Discover

My recent trip to the Alice Munro Festival of the Short Story in Bayfield and Wingham Ontario earlier this month was a treat.  Although I was only able to attend the sessions on Saturday I was not disappointed.  I heard one of my favourite Canadian voices as Ami McKay took the stage and delighted the audience with her process and a short selection from The Witches of New York.  McKay is fast becoming one of my favourite authors as I have been a fan since her debut novel The Birth House.  Her writing process and her interest in historical events, people and places gives her stories life and the connections to her own relatives is fascinating.  If you have not read McKay’s work yet, please do so because she is one of the best.

IMG_4841

IMG_4863

Further I was introduced to new voices including Sarah Meehan Sirk and her debut of short stories called The Dead Husband Project.  Please read my review of this brilliant new Canadian voice in the link.

IMG_4839

In addition to Meehan Sirk, I was introduced to my first transgendered writer Casey Plett.  Plett is a new voice in Canadian literature and her novel, Little Fish tells the tale of a Wendy, who is transgendered coming back home only to learn that her grandfather may have also been transgendered.  Shockingly, the grandfather was from a devout Mennonite background at a time when transgendered would not have been discussed.  Plett offered the audience a little glimpse of her story (see picture above) and I was so intrigued as she started to tell Wendy’s story.  She writes with vivid candour and develops each character’s voice in a unique way.  I look forward to reading more of her work.  Casey was exceptionally gracious and kind as she signed books at the end of the panel.  Always a thrill for a bibliophile like me!

IMG_4842

Lastly during the festival I was so fortunate to hear from established Canadian-Irish writer Emma Donoghue who was so funny and intriguing to listen to.  She had the audience captivated from her first word.  Although slated to read from The Wonder, her latest novel, she opted to instead read to us a hilarious story she had written for radio called The Road Taken (a nod to Robert Frost).  She did not fail in her delivery as the audience laughed out loud at the absurd tale of a mother harshly criticized on social media.  I will never hear the word (#) hashtag the same way again.  Donoghue’s commentary on social media and her insight into writing in general was refreshing and very inspiring.

Overall I am so happy that I took the solo road trip to the festival.  It was well worth my time and what I learned from each author was incredibly invaluable as not just a reader and writer, but as a teacher too.  I look forward to going to the Alice Munro Festival of the Short Story in 2019.

Alice Munro · books · Canadian books · Canadians · short story

The Short Story and my love affair with famed Canadian author Alice Munro

I vividly remember my first look into the literary world of Alice Munro. I was in my first year of university at Brescia College in London, Ontario and my thoughtful professor had enough foresight to include The Lives of Girls and Women on the syllabus. That book was a wonder and changed how I read short stories forever.

For those who do not know about Alice Munro, you should. Most recently I introduced her flavourful writing style to my book club when we read Dear Life published in 2012. I have to admit, I was shocked many of these women who I admire greatly had never read anything by one of my favourite writers. How could this be? The average age of book club members is 65 and I was astonished she had been missed by these well-read women.

Munro is the kind of writer that has a unique voice. Her characters come alive in their simplicity and complicated lives. She writes equally in a woman’s voice or a man’s or a child’s for that matter. Not all writers can successfully pull that off. When I read stories by Munro I am transported to that place and time easily. She writes paying special attention to local colour, dialogue and setting as she tells each story. The details are memorable long after the book closes.

“His tan looked like pancake makeup, though it was probably all real. There was something theatrical about him altogether, tight and glittery and taunting. Something obscene about his skinniness and sweet, hard smile.”
-from the story Mischief from Who Do You Think You Are? (1978)

IMG_4341

Munro is an author I have come to greatly admire as each of her books gets better and better with time. I have always appreciated the characters she creates in her stories. From my first meeting with Munro through her character Del in The Lives of Girls and Women to other characters like Flo and Rose who grappled with the realities and hardships of growing up. Munro was not afraid to write female characters who were challenging sexual stereotypes, engaging in risk-taking behaviour and really, enjoying an odyssey of self-discovery. This is most likely why her stories resonated with me in that first year English class.

As a Canadian, I also have a deep appreciation for the settings that Munro chooses in her stories. Some are just SO Canadian that I can feel like I’ve been there before. Some are reflective of small town Ontario while others venture into bigger cities like Toronto and Vancouver.

“Now there was a village. Or suburb, perhaps you could call it, because she did not see any Post Office or even the most uncompromising convenience store. The settlement lay four or five streets deep along the lake, with small houses strung close together on small lots. Some of them were undoubtedly summer places
— the windows already boarded up, as was always done for
winter season.”
-From Runaway published in 2004.

As much as I admire all of Alice Munro’s books I probably liked Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage the best. Published in 2001, this collection of nine stories is a work of literary art. Each character so uniquely different telling a story that is their own. The dialogue is sharp and quick-witted when called for. Her characters are described in minute detail: “…a woman with a high, freckled forehead and a frizz of reddish hair came into the railway station and inquired about shipping furniture. …Her teeth were crowded to the front of her mouth as if they were ready for an argument.” Amazing. I can see her now. As a reader who readily enjoys descriptive writing, Munro is a marvel.

IMG_4343

One summer my family and I accidentally came across The Alice Munro Literary Gardens in her hometown of Wingham, Ontario. For a bibliophile like me, this was like seeing a rock star. All of her works were there with a beautiful small garden to wander through. Munro has also received numerous awards for her body of work and many of the attributes were on hand to view. She is a much celebrated and admired writer of my country.

As I close this blog post I credit Alice Munro for cultivating my love of the short story. It is not an easy feat as a writer to achieve a successful short story that is engaging and entertaining. Because of her, I have sought out short stories and discovered new authors along the way which is one of the best things about reading. I urge you to find an Alice Munro collection and read it. She is engaging, witty and writes with considerable depth and consideration. I hope you enjoy her as much as I do.

books · Canadian books · Canadians · dogs · library · reading · summer · witches

Summer Reads

As the summer comes to a close with the temperatures getting cooler each night and the sun setting a little earlier each evening, I think back on all the books I have read over this nine-week period.

Thirteen books have passed through my hands during the hot months of July and August and some were page-turners while others left me wanting for more.

I found these books in libraries, on my own book shelf and on the shelves of book stores, both big box and local and in an airport.  With each read I was transported to a different time and place depending on the genre of the book and the focus of the author.

The summer started with the novel by Canadian author Katherena Vermette who first came to my attention with a fantastic collection of very Canadian short stories.  I did not want to pass up her debut novel The Break and I was not disappointed.  Although I have already blogged briefly about this novel, I wanted to mention it again as I liked the characters and the stories.  A brief synopsis was shared with a friend of mine who asked what I thought of it:

“I really liked it. I had a hard time putting it down. I did have a hard time connecting to Stella and her inability to react. It was not the easiest subject to write about but the author did a good job in creating the different narrative voices to reveal each part of the story.”

As a dog lover I picked up two different novels completely by chance at my local public library in Hamilton at different points during the summer.  The first called Ordinary Dogs, Extraordinary Friendships: Stories of Loyalty, Courage and, Compassion is a non-fiction book that chronicles the amazing life and adventures of Pam Flowers and her trips into the Arctic with her team of sled dogs.  Her tales are harrowing at times and this would be a great read for young adolescents who happen to love dogs.  After reading this book, I had a greater respect for working dogs and the people who love them.

More recently I finished the short book Good Dog, Stay by renowned American author Anna Quindlen.  It is another account of dogs and their people; those who love them and bond with them.  I liked this book and Quindlen’s devotion to the different dogs that came into her life and bonded with her children with a focus on her Labrador retriever, Beau.  It is a sweet story for anyone who has had a dog and loved it and the heart-wrenching decision to put your dog down when it needs to end its’ suffering.  Get the tissues out for this one.

As the summer passed I made more time to read including a collection of short stories called Boundary Country by Tom Wayman.  Some of the stories I really liked as they often reflected my countries vast and varied landscape and climate.  This was my first introduction to Wayman who is otherwise known in the literary world as a poet.  He seems to have a keen grasp of the human condition as he writes each story sometimes using historical events to frame the narrative.

Into my hands came more Canadian authors including Margaret Laurence as I re-visited her writing style through The Fire-Dwellers and laughed out loud as I read through the highly recommended Home From the Vinyl Café: A Year of Stories by Stuart McLean.  Although both authors are deceased, each book reminded me of the greatness of some of my country’s authors and how incredibly Canadian a book can be.  The narrative, the setting and even the dialogue is uniquely my country’s own as I read through each book.

I also found myself reading a few graphic novels as the summer went on.  One I was extremely excited to find, as it had been on my “to-read” list on GoodReads for some time.  Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? was one of the best reads this summer.  The subject matter is sad and depressing but how Chast presents the true story of her parents aging and eventual deaths is so authentic.  The cartoons are fantastic as she chronicles her parents and their eccentricities.  As a person who has lived through the experience of watching a parent die as a result of a chronic illness some of what Chast says is relatable.  Although my father died at the early age of 64 and Chast’s parents live into their nineties, the relatability is similar.  I really recommend this book to anyone who is at this stage in their life where the roles are reversed and one is caring for an aging and/or dying parent.  An uncomfortable topic to be sure, but Chast’s wit and genuine reflection on this terrible time in an adult child’s life is written with true compassion and care.

The lazy month of August came and I flew through Miller’s Valley when I ran out of something to read while travelling back from Las Vegas.  This was my first Anna Quindlen novel.  I had always wanted to read something by this much celebrated American author but opportunity to do so never materialized.  The novel started slow but gained some momentum as the family saga played out focusing on protagonist Mimi Miller.  It is a cautionary tale related to water sustainability while Quindlen creates both likeable and unlikeable characters for the reader to absorb.  I was pleased with this book and will read more of Quindlen’s work.

While in beautiful Las Vegas I was continuing to read Into the Water which I had started before we left for our trip. The much-anticipated follow-up novel from best-selling author Paula Hawkins had me intrigued.  I had heard a podcast (Q) on CBC radio where Hawkins was interviewed and discussed her writing and the incredible success she received following her excellent debut novel Girl on the Train (which I loved!).  I did like the novel as it read much like a mystery, but it is so hard for any author to follow the kind of success from a stellar debut like Girl on the Train.

The last two books I wanted to blog about in this post are very different from each other.  The Witches of New York is by Nova Scotia author Ami McKay who I know from her terrific first novel The Birth House.  McKay is an author I really like.  She incorporates quite a bit of historical information into each story and this novel is no exception referencing the horrific Salem witch trials (Into the Water referenced the trials too).  All three protagonists are very different but oh so likeable!  The book is filled with beautiful illustrations and poetic verses and witches’ spells that all add to the story.  I was sorry when it was over.  McKay’s imagination and the ability to weave together an engaging tale is a true gift.IMG_3110

The last book for this blog post is another book that I had wanted to read but kept missing.  A Number of Things: Stories of Canada Told Through Fifty Objects should be mandatory reading in all Canadian schools.  Jane Urquhart is a Canadian author who weaves together a historical and engaging account of fifty objects that connect to Canada all neatly illustrated by Canadian Scott McKowen.  Not every Canadian would have chosen the same fifty objects that Urquhart did but they are good choices that tell a story of our nation coming together to become the country that it is today, and will continue to be as the world changes.  I liked this book because Urquhart does pick some strange things like a tractor and a shoe, but the more the reader reads, the clearer the reasoning is for her choices. I learned new tidbits and facts about my country.IMG_3219

As the summer comes to a close and I get ready to head back into the classroom, I will have new books to share with my students and family.  Now to get to that list for Autumn…

books · Canadian books · reading

The Great White North: The Importance of Reading your Country’s Authors.

My country recently celebrated 150 years.  Canada Day celebrated on July 1st each year offers Canadians a chance to celebrate their heritage, our flag, our uniqueness and each other, often with the help of a 2-4 (case of beer for you non-Canadians out there).  Like any country that celebrates a birthday we Canadians pulled out all the stops for this big birthday bash.  I happened to be celebrating with my family at our trailer in Ontario.  There was a big fireworks show at dusk; a bike race where the kids and adults could show off their pride with red and white decorations and flags.  Most people were also dressed up in red and white for the day and weekend.  If you were fortunate to be in our nation’s capitol for the festivities (Ottawa) like my cousin was, Canadians were in for one heck of a fireworks show!

Aside from National Pride, Canadians have much to celebrate when it comes to acknowledging our amazing writing talent both past and present.  As a young child I fell in love with Anne of Green Gables by beloved Canadian author L.M. Montgomery.  Anne had red hair like me and she spelled her name with an “e” just like my middle name. Although I was not an orphan, I sometimes believed I was after the horrid tales my sister would tell me about how I fell off a turnip truck or came from outer space.  Anne is a character that any child could relate to.  She got in trouble for silly things, had a crush, turned beet-red after being embarrassed, and had challenges growing up.  I remember a highlight in my twenties was finally going to P.E.I. to Green Gables!  Oh how I loved the idyllic setting and seeing Anne’s house up close along with learning so much about L.M. Montgomery.  Montgomery created other characters aside from Anne Shirley but she will be forever one of my favourite childhood heroines.

In university I was introduced to one of my all-time favourite Canadian authors Alice Munro.   Lives of Girls and Women was part of the syllabus in first year English at the University of Western – Brescia College in London, Ontario.  What an incredible pick from my professor!  This book was love at first read and I went on to read everything Munro has published since.  Munro has a very unique writing voice.  Her characters and plot lines are very relatable yet also uniquely Canadian.  She uses real towns as the backdrop for many of her stories and her incredible use of observation skills adds a richness to her stories.

Like Munro, Carol Shields is also a favourite Canadian author.  As a teen, I first found her through her novel The Stone Diaries.  Shield writes in the raw.  Her stories unfold through the eyes of characters who are faced with sometimes terrible circumstances and tragedy as is the case in her novel Unless.  Shields created characters who are vulnerable when they need to be but also funny and sweet.  She is also the author of short stories which happens to be one of my favourite genres.  I have always liked her writing as she created very memorable stories and characters.

Recently I have consciously tried to read novels and works from Canadian authors when I can.  Elizabeth Hay is a newer favourite as is Stuart McLean, Farley Mowat, Richard Wagamese, Tracey Lindberg and Heather O’Neill.  These authors all write in a very different voices with different stories to tell yet each time I finish one or all of their published books, I leave with something new to think about.  It might be a new perspective on a social issue, a story that has been lost, or just the pure enjoyment of reading.

Most recently I finished The Break by Canadian author Katherena Vermette.  I first came across Vermette’s writing on the shelves of my local library.  Her short story collection North End Love Songs beckoned to me.  As a fan of short stories I was not disappointed. Her stories reminded me of my hometown and the people in it although it takes place in Winnipeg’s North End.  Contrary to the title, these stories were not all sunshine and roses but gritty tales that could be ugly at times.  When I saw that she had published a novel, I had to buy it. I really liked it and I had a hard time putting it down. I did have a difficulty connecting to her one character Stella and her inability to react.   The subject could not have been easy to write about but Vermette told a captivating story by creating different narrative voices to reveal each part of the story.  She will be a writer I will continue to seek out and read. 

There is a great benefit in reading the authors that come from your own country.  In this blog post I have only captured a minute snapshot of those Canadians I admire.  Whether you find a writer who tells real tales or fictitious ones, it is worth reading those voices.  It is a great way to “see” and experience the country from varying perspectives.