Monthly Archives: January 2011

‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’ by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

It’s 1946 and the author Juliet Ashton has writer’s block. A chance letter from Dawsey Adams of Guernsey is the start of an enthusiastic correspondence and life changing visit to the island which is just emerging from German Occupation.

This is an epistolary novel. Do you know what that is? The root ‘epistle’ should be a clue! The story is written completely in letters and is  humorous,  life-affirming, and filled with humanity. Though if has a lighthearted feel to it, this book opened my eyes to how severely the Channel Islands were impacted by WW II. And it made me want to visit these beautiful islands.

Here’s a tip for dealing with all the names and keeping track of who’s who (20 characters in all!). Take a yellow sticky and place it into the inside cover of the book.  Keep a pen nearby and jot down each character’s name and couple of words about who they are. It’s not hard work, just something to jog your memory and beats rereading. After I was halfway through I didn’t need my cheat sheet anymore.

Here’s an introduction to the book by the author herself.  She’ll tell you all you need to know before you get started.

‘Still Alice’ by Lisa Genova

Alice is diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer’s at age 50. This important moving story is written like a memoir, although it is fiction, and gives a tremendous insight into this devastating disease.

The author is qualified to write her first novel on this subject because she has a PH.D. in neuroscience from Harvard.  But there is alot more than medical stuff. The story is also about identity and living a life that matters, and about what crisis situations can do to relationships.

Alzheimer’s is a disease with memory loss, and of course while I was reading it I worried about things that I was forgetting. In the book there is a test that Alice takes to see how her memory is, and I found I was testing myself on that as well! We always make things about ourselves, don’t we? Don’t be afraid to read this book.  You will gain an awareness and sensitivity to the realities of living with Alzheimer’s, and in the end there is a hopeful tone. When so much recognition and ability for Alice is gone, what she still can recognize and detect, if even only in nuance, is love. I find that reassuring.

If you have already read Still Alice you might be interested to know that Lisa Genova just came out with another novel called ‘Left Neglected’ about brain injury.

‘The Hunger Games’ by Suzanne Collins

If you get into this book, be prepared to carry right on through the series – it is compulsively readable.  Hunger Games came out in 2008,  followed by sequels Catching Fire (2009) and Mockingjay (2010).  So if you haven’t heard of it yet, you are in great luck because if you had started in 2008, the sequels couldn’t come out quick enough. This futuristic trilogy by Suzanne Collins is written for young adults but is just as addictive for adults. My husband started it one day and never left the chair until it was done!

North America as we know it is gone, and in its place are 12 Districts with a Capital. Some districts are richer and some poorer, but the closer you are to the Capital, the better off you are. In sort of ‘Big Brother’ fashion, the Capital hosts the Hunger Games and watches while young people are pitted against one another to survive and bring acclaim to their district. It is reminiscent of our culture’s obsession with reality TV.

The Hunger Games has something for everyone. It is thoughtful, has lots of adventure, there’s a little romance, it has something to say about justice issues, poverty, and the advantage of the wealthy in war.

The only thing that totally stumps me, is that after inhaling the first two in the series, I have Mockingjay sitting on my shelf and I haven’t gotten to it yet. Too many books, too little time. I should have my head examined! I’ve just inspired myself! I’ll read it next!

‘Never Let Me Go’ by Kazuo Ishiguro

It would be unfair to give too much away here. Let’s just say that all is not what it seems at an exclusive boarding school in England. On the surface, it is the perfect start in life, but the question is, what kind of life?

I found this book intriguing from the start. Even though I had no idea what was actually going on, the story had my attention and I could not pull away. Usually I consult reviews at some point while I am reading a book , but with this one I instinctively realized I should resist the temptation. It was better to allow the understanding to dawn slowly in small reveals along the way. I also resisted seeing the movie on a plane while I was actually still reading it – such self-control, and I enjoyed seeing The Social Network instead!

The writing by this Japanese author is excellent although there may not be enough happening for action and plot lovers. If you like to explore the nuances within relationships and are intrigued by interpersonal dynamics, this is definitely a book for you. And after you have read the book, you can see the movie!

Author Feature: Kate DiCamillo

Children’s books have always been important to me. Good children’s literature should be enjoyed by children of all ages, including adults. Despite several moves, I have still hung on to all of the picture books that I enjoyed reading to our children – I can’t let them go.

One author, not included in that collection of mine until recently, is Kate DiCamillo. I discovered her books at a reading conference and they have captivated me. I have fallen in love with her haunting style. She has a direct approach with difficult subjects. Somewhere in the beautiful, polished stories she creates, there comes an upper cut of a fist – a shot of realism that we know is always part of life, but should it be in a book for children?

One of the things that a good children’s book does is to allow children to experience the real world vicariously, which includes sadness and loss. Through the story the child can safely imagine how they would react in the same situation. One fantasy author said once “if it’s too scary for adults, give it to children.”

Here are the books that I’ve read from this author. Though they are poignant, with DiCamillo’s books whenever there is loss, there is also redemption. Why not read one aloud, and if you can’t find a child to read to, find an adult!

Also, here are some FAQs about the author:

The Magician’s Elephant

Peter wants to find his long lost sister. When a fortune teller tells him that an elephant will lead him there, what seems an impossibility, becomes an amazing story with a sense of everyday magic. A haunting modern tale about the transformative power of hope and the value of community.

‘The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane’

The timeless tale of a lost china rabbit.  Edward goes on a difficult journey which causes him to grow and learn some important life lessons and to discover the true meaning of love.

‘Because of Winn Dixie’

A hymn of praise to dogs, friendship, and the South. In life sad and sweet and are always all mixed up together. Everything changes one day, when Opal goes into a supermarket and comes out with a scraggly dog.

‘Great Joy’

A Christmas story full of compassion and joy. This is a beautifully illustrated, unusual story – unsentimental and real.


‘The Tiger Rising’

DeCamillo often has characters who just appear to her, and one day Rob showed up. He haunted her other stories, until she finally wrote this story about a tiger, grief, and redemption. Like a tiger (and grief) some things can’t be locked up forever!

‘The Tale of Despereaux’

Three unforgettable characters embark on a journey that will lead them to a horrible dungeon, a glittering castle, and into each other’s lives – a mouse, a rat, and a serving girl. A delicious soup of an old world tale with a cheeky twist.

‘Sarah’s Key’, by Tatiana de Rosnay

Sarah’s Key unlocks a powerful story that is so well written it is hard to put down. This book is one of those gems that will be read, remembered, and recommended to many. So many people in the story were unaware of the events  in Paris on July 16, 1942,  and I confess that I was also unaware.

The Velodrome d’Hiver roundup (Vel d’Hiv) is a historical reality in France that is hard to bear but should never be forgotten.  “Nobody remembers. Why should they? Those were the darkest days of our country.” But de Rosnay has given us a story that is compelling, hopeful, and healing.

The narrative switches between Sarah’s voice during the time of the Holocaust and Julia’s voice in the present day, until they finally merge and secrets are revealed.

Here is a short video of the author speaking about the book, there are no spoilers in it.

‘Mennonite in a Little Black Dress’, by Rhoda Janzen

I read this book when I still had a small dog who slept in my lap when I read. He didn’t really like this book, because I kept startling him every time I burst out laughing.
Rhoda Janzen’s husband leaves her for a guy called Bob who he met on She is in a terrible car accident, and becomes unable to meet her mortgage payments. Her only option as she reels from all of this, is a return to her Mennonite home. Her humour and breezy voice move the story along as she rediscovers the warmth and strength of her roots, and her Mennonite mother is such a hoot!

Janzen was once poet laureate at UCLA, she now teaches writing at Hope College, and  is an excellent writer. Apparently she’s one of those teachers who has the reputation for being really tough, but if you survive the class, you learn so much.

Janzen believes that biography should be more than the story of a life.  She believes that in a memoir,  there must be movement from captivity to restoration: a resolving of a problem, as in music when a minor note resolves to a satisfying major in the final note. For the author the redemption was to rediscover the value of her upbringing when she returned to the family home.

Click the link below if you want to hear Rhoda Janzen speak about her Mennonite home and her upbringing. There are no spoilers in it.  At four minutes it’s a bit long for an interview, but if you’re like me, hearing and seeing the author enhances the reading of the book.


‘Half Broke Horses’, by Jeannette Walls

For those of you who loved The Glass Castle, here is another great story from Walls, again based on her family members; this time it is about her no nonsense, feisty grandmother. And if you haven’t read The Glass Castle, drop everything and run to the library.

This is fiction but it is really the story of Jeannette Walls’ grandmother, Lily Casey Smith. In Walls’ signature offhand, unsentimental voice, the story unfolds of a remarkable woman. Yes, she broke horses, but she did way more than that. She was a surviver and adventurer, no dream too big or unusual for her to tackle.

What I enjoyed most about Half Broke Horses, after first reading The Glass Castle, was an understanding of the family that Rosemary Smith Walls grew up in. It does shed some light on that memorable character and what made her who she was.

‘The Charming Quirks of Others’, by Alexander McCall Smith

In this, the 7th instalment of the Isabel Dalhousie Series, otherwise known as the Sunday Philosophy Club, Isabel is asked by some friends to look into a tricky situation. A successor is being sought for a headmaster position, but the board has gotten a letter suggesting that one of the candidates has a serious skeleton in his closet. Isabel is asked to discreetly look into it and what she discovers is surprising!

Alexander McCall Smith is himself a medical ethicist and through the main character of this series, he explores moral and ethical issues. But he does it in such an amusing and entertaining way! The author has a way of elevating and celebrating the ordinary, and Isabel Dalhousie is an ordinary, slightly nosy, Scottish lady. Because of her innate desire to help others, she ends up in some situations that she really shouldn’t be in, and unlike Mma Ramotswe, who always gets things right, Isabel often gets things wrong. And that is why we love her.

McCall Smith is master at capturing everyday sorts of truths in his books, articulating that which we know to be true, but have never found words to describe. “She was well dressed…it was not ostentatious clothes that were really expensive, it was quiet clothes that exhausted the credit card…”.

One of the things McCall Smith does so well is celebrate the little things in life…which, of course, are really the big things. Did you know that he plays bassoon in the RTO (Really Terrible Orchestra)? There is pleasure to be found in being amateur, for the author and for his characters.

To get into the series, start with the first one, The Sunday Philosophy Club, and watch an interview about the Isabel Dalhousie Novels from the link below.  This website is also helpful for keeping all of his series straight, and knowing which book is next so that you read them in order. To see the videos, just click on Multimedia.


‘Three Men in a Boat’, by Jerome K. Jerome

From time to time we all get the urge to read an old classic, you know, something written in the late 1800s, that we think will be good for us, but we resist actually doing it because we’re pretty sure it will be hard work. Well, have I got a readable old classic for you!

Three bungling Victorian youth and their naughty dog, decide to go on a journey up the River Thames, from Kingston to Oxford! The book was originally meant to be a serious travelogue but the humour in it took over and it became a comic British novel. The book is funny, fresh, and undated, despite the fact that it was written in 1889! The three men are based on the author himself, and two of his friends who later became successful business men in London.

In many ways the book is a tongue in cheek critique of the self-absorbed and self-centered wealthy youth during the Victorian era. The young men are hypochondriacs and have very few survival skills when out on their own. The passages where they try to put up a tent or cook a meal are hilarious, and their misadventures will resonate with anyone who camps or travels today.

The dog, a terrier, features prominently in the subtitle (‘To Say Nothing of the Dog’) and in the story. Montmorency is described as having “four times the usual amount of original sin”, and yet can sit sweetly and look like an angel. If you’ve ever owned a terrier you know how true that description is.  Incidentally, when all is said and done, the dog does have the last word!

This book was the first assignment in my new book club in Windsor/Eton. It was fun to read shortly after my arrival in England because we live in that area and most of their stops along the River Thames were already familiar to me

After you’ve read the book, you may want to watch the BBC TV episode where three modern men recreate the journey.  Here is part 1 to get  you started.