Monthly Archives: January 2012

‘War Horse’, by Michael Morpurgo

This post is NOT about the movie. Most of the people I’ve spoken to who have seen the movie ‘War Horse’ were unaware that it was first a children’s book by Michael Morpurgo. The story he tells is World War I from the perspective of the horse. Though affected by the war, the horse is a neutral party.

Michael Morpurgo is a master storyteller and an excellent speaker. I had the pleasure of hearing him speak in our little town of Windsor last year. What he said about ‘War Horse’ at that time, just before the movie came out, is that Joey represents all of the victims of war without taking any particular side. I’ve included an interview with the author at the end of this post.

Michael Morpurgo is a great storyteller. Since I had read War Horse a long time ago, I just spent the weekend reading three more of his books. I was totally absorbed. He has written a lot of them. Have a look at his website. It’s entitled “Stories for everyone.” That is exactly right. That is what he does. He tells stories that everyone, at any age, would enjoy, and those are always the best kind.  (

Washed up on an island in the Pacific, Michael struggles to survive on his own. With no food and no water, he curls up to die. When he wakes, there is a plate beside him of fish, of fruit, and a bowl of fresh water. He is not alone…


Aman, a refugee from Afghanistan, badly needs a friend, when a Springer Spaniel appears, seemingly out of nowhere. The dog becomes a constant companion, a shadow, and that’s what Aman decides to call her.


They say cats have nine lives, and that’s certainly true of Kaspar. From the glamorous suites of the Savoy Hotel to the servants’ quarters in the attic, to New York City, Kaspar proves that no cat is too small for big adventures. But then this is no ordinary cat. He’s Prince Kaspar Kandinksky – the only cat to survive the sinking of the Titanic…

‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’ by Jonathan Safran Foer

A long time ago someone recommended this book to me. She said, “when you read it, I want to talk about it with you.” I must confess, it has taken me some time to get to it, but Laura, I’m ready to talk now. This book is so unusual and creative. It is an extremely good story and incredibly unique. It is funny and sad and moving and innovative.  It is an adventure story but also tackles the tough stuff like the problem of pain in our lives and the ways in which we deal with that.  The book has lots of pictures, and I love picture books.

Oskar is nine years old and autistic. After his father is killed in the World Trade Center, Oskar finds a key in his father’s closet and embarks on a quest to discover the lock which fits this mysterious key. Oskar is extremely smart and incredibly brave. He is an inventor and his imagination is unstoppable. It is so much fun to dwell alongside the quirky thoughts in his head as he travels around NYC.  The author must have enjoyed inventing the unusual effects in his book. I’m not even sure I’ve figured them all out, so I’m glad I can ask him myself when I attend a writers’ conference in April. What has me stumped are the six doorknob pictures and their exact significance. It feels like a riddle of my own to solve. Please comment if you’ve read the book and have it figured out.

One important thing to know is that there are two story lines in addition to Oskar’s. The chapters entitled “Why I’m Not Where You Are” are letters written by Thomas’ father explaining his reasons for returning to Germany before Thomas was born. The chapters entitled “My Feelings” are a letter from Oskar’s grandmother, explaining some things in her life.

Here is the trailer for the movie starring Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock. Although I haven’t seen the movie yet, I have a sense that some of the literary techniques will be lost in the movie as well as the opportunity to enter Oskar’s head. But it’s still a cracking good story either way.

‘Love Wins’ by Rob Bell

  Get it. Read it. Ponder it.

There are so many good points in this book. It is positive, refreshing, and for me rings true. It is written in an inclusive style that draws the reader in. It asks some really good questions. And sometimes a really good question is as important as a number of answers. The ideas are new,  yet not new, and are presented in a clear, uncluttered voice.

Bell’s book is controversial and has sparked some negative reviews. As is often the case with controversial books, many judge without ever cracking the spine. So don’t rely on what others say, read it for yourself.

‘The Mistress of Nothing’ by Kate Pullinger

It was the setting of Luxor, Egypt that attracted me to ‘The Mistress of Nothing’. We plan to travel there in March. It is based on the true story of Lady Lucie Duff Gordon, an English writer (“Letters from Egypt”) who moved to Egypt from England in the 1800’s because she was suffering from tuberculosis and needed a warmer climate. She fell in love with the land and its people and cast off her British ways along with her high collars and stays. She brought with her a devoted maid who also changed in many ways, but was not in the end afforded the same leeway by Lady Gordon. Strangely, the Victorian aristocratic notions prevailed and Sally, the maid, was cast out for following her heart in the new land. Or were there other reasons for her surprising reaction to her maid’s predicament, not at all consistent with her actions or character? The answer is deliciously unclear so you can speculate on your own.

‘The Mistress of Nothing’  won the Governor General’s Award in 2009 and is a captivating armchair travelogue with a decent story line. The exotic ancient setting and exploration of that time period, both Egyptian and English, make it a good piece of historical fiction.

The words on the back cover of the book sum it up well. “Sally and Lady Duff Gordon throw themselves into their exotic surrounding, adopting native dress, learning Arabic, and visiting the tombs of ancient pharaohs. Along the way, Sally comes to experience freedoms she as a servant, has never known before, as well as her first taste of romance. But freedom is a luxury that a maid can ill afford, and when Sally grasps far more than status entitles her to, she is brutally reminded that she is mistress of nothing.”

‘The Tenderness of Wolves’ by Stef Penney

A beautiful portrayal of the Canadian north in 1867. Ironically, the author is British and I read it for my UK reading group. But I am a Canadian and loved the view into that time period, the days of trappers and the early days of the Hudson’s Bay Co. Even walking into The Bay in Toronto the other day made me think back to an earlier time…I bought some very warm gloves (on sale).  The novel is atmospheric and affecting, you do carry it with you while reading it. I often felt chilly while reading this book, but perhaps it was just being in Canada in January.

A woman’s son disappears following a brutal murder in a small town. She journeys into the snowy cold wilderness to track him and clear his name, but she is not alone. Many others are tracking as well, and as new characters are introduced, suddenly the wilderness seems full of other trackers and possible suspects, all on their own journeys. Penney’s writing captures the spirit of the place and the time and the themes are around a sense of longing, a yearning for something you seek, but may never find.  There is little tenderness in the wild and rugged landscape.  The wolves are often feared but never turn out to be the culprits – man is much more to be feared than wolf.

The suspense in the novel centres around the murder but there are many other secrets and suspicions.  There are a lot of characters to keep track of in this one, so I kept a yellow sticky in the front to scribble a ‘who’s who’ list which becomes a handy reference. The various narratives become clearer as the story progresses. This book reminded me of Joseph Boyden’s novel ‘Through Black Spruce’. The author is interesting – she never travelled to Canada because she was agoraphobic and couldn’t fly or even travel by train. She did her research at the British Library in London.

‘What’s so Amazing about Grace’ by Philip Yancey

Grace is getting what we don’t deserve; mercy is not getting what we do deserve. 

It is fitting to start the New Year with a book about grace. We all know that remarkable relief when we know we are wrong and yet don’t get into trouble for it. It is so easy to see “ungrace” when grace is absent, and so wonderful when it is present. It’s like when you accidentally break that vase in your mother’s house and instead of the wrath or disappointment you were expecting, she says something like “oh, I always secretly hated that old thing!”  Grace is profound and truly amazing. It is so comforting to know that God is full of grace and unconditional love. “There is nothing we can do to make God love us more. There is nothing we can do to make God love us less.”

Though not new, ‘What’s so Amazing about Grace’  is one of the few books that I re-read every few years. In all of his books, what Yancey brings to the reader  is profound thinking in a highly readable style. Through stories Yancey not so much defines, as gives us a sense of grace and ungrace. Rather than being known for what they are against, imagine Christians being known for bringing the transformative power of love and grace to others?  I love the quote the publisher put on the flyleaf about this book: “Grace does not excuse sin, says Yancy, but it treasures the sinner. True grace is shocking, scandalous. It shakes our conventions with its insistence on getting close to sinners and touching them with mercy and hope.”