Monthly Archives: July 2014

‘The Invention of Wings’ by Sue Monk Kidd

The Invention of WingsstarstarstarstarstarCompulsively readable and full of heart and soul, this is a tremendous work of historical fiction. Set in Charleston N.C. during the 19th century, it is a story with two alternating narratives. Hetty is a slave girl who longs to be free. Sarah is a Southern white girl who longs to be a lawyer. When she is presented with the gift of a slave at her eleventh birthday, Sarah tries to give Hetty her freedom. But Sarah is living in a world where women have no rights. Both women are imprisoned and covet freedom from their situations. They create a unique bond and enter into a  journey of courage and survival, giving voice to the power of the human spirit and hope in the midst of adversity. I would recommend this book to anyone and everyone.

Many of the people in this novel are historical. Kidd has fleshed them out but kept the authenticity as much as possible. Not only has she done her research well, the story is written so beautifully – full of unforgettable characters who leap off the pages of history and make you feel their joys and sorrows in your very bones. As with The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd provides an entertaining and affecting read that will stay with me for a very long time. Excellent for book clubs because it is so easy to read and compelling, yet full of themes and masterful literary writing that make for great discussion. This book doesn’t need Oprah’s endorsement. It will stand on its own merit for many years to come.

‘Have You Seen My Dragon?’ by Steve Light

Have You Seen My Dragon?starstarstarstarThis creative and unique children’s picture book set in New York City would make an excellent read aloud gift for any young child (2-5). A little boy has misplaced his enormous dragon and looks for him all over the city.  Although, since the words NYC never appear, it could actually be any city to a small child.

The pen and ink illustrations and splashes of colour are intricate, ornate and folksy at the same time. It is a counting book (numbers 1 – 20) with a “Where’s Waldo” element as the search goes on, uptown and downtown.  Of course the dragon is actually right there on every page which is half the fun. Is he eating a hotdog? going on the subway? riding a bicycle? reading a book? Each illustration is a two-page spread, even going vertical when a tall building needs accommodation.

‘Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour’ by Kate Fox

Watching the EnglishstarstarstarstarstarIf you ever find yourself  in England for awhile, this is a must read. I’m glad I waited until I had been living in the country for several years and could recognize the quirks, habits, and foibles the author describes. It’s not a travelogue though, it’s an anthropological study. So unless you are a very thorough traveller, I’d stick with Frommer’s. I think it would be an entertaining book for any local English person as well. I did check with a few English friends to make sure: they loved it too and found it accurate and articulate, at least, I think they weren’t just being polite! It’s positively brilliant.

Kate Fox, a social anthropologist tackles many, many topics like weather, home rules, work rules, pub rounds etiquette, queuing, privacy, gardening, tv shows, food, and dress codes, to only mention a few. Especially useful is a subtle roadmap to English class indicators. In addition to being informative, she uses her own marvellous sense of humour to full advantage as she kindly pokes fun at her own culture while cleverly bringing beautifully observed insights to the reader.

The English hate talking about money. They use joking as a coping mechanism for anything embarrassing, uncomfortable, or frightening. They have a great sense of fair play, are painfully private, love to gossip, and are always playing down achievements with self-deprecating humour. They moan about everything from work to weather, but only just enough to keep it a ‘lighthearted moan’.  They are painfully polite, apologizing even when someone else bumps into them! Fox captures the nuance in these things so well. Her curiosity helps her uncover the seeming contradictions and puzzling behaviours of English society.

The book has clear headings so it is easy to dip in anywhere and there is no need to read the chapters in order or even all at once. It’s impressive to find a comprehensive scientific study so well researched and yet so highly readable!

‘Astonish Me’ by Maggie Shipstead

Astonish Mestarstarstar“Ballet, like other pursuits that require immense determination and reward showmanship, seems to foster hubris. But maybe all art fosters hubris,” p. 212.

‘Astonish Me’ is a novel about the mysterious world of professional ballet. Dancers seem to punish their bodies and their souls. Ever hungry and hungry for perfection, they work till the blood soaks through their slippers and their relationships crumble around their feet. Perfection is only barely good enough. “You can’t be weak in the ballet or it will crush you,” p. 129. All this sacrifice and discipline and determination is to be one of the few who can make it to the top. These are the ones who excel at this demanding dance and create such beauty on stage.

This is the first novel I have read by Maggie Shipstead and I must say I enjoyed her writing. This work of fiction follows two generations of professional ballet dancers. The world she creates seems to be divided into dancers and non-dancers. There’s not a lot of plot in the book but the story never lagged. It was a powerful insight into a world I was unfamiliar with. Some reviewers appreciated the subject of this novel, but preferred her other novel Seating Arrangements.

‘All the Light We Cannot See’ by Anthony Doerr

All the Light we Cannot SeestarstarstarstarThis is a moving and haunting novel, so well researched and described, with two unforgettable main characters. It will likely be one of those gems that many individuals and book clubs will be talking about. It is going to make an incredible movie one day. This is not just another WW 2 story, it has an original quality that sets it apart.

Marie-Laure is a blind girl in France whose father has built a replica of their neighbourhood in miniature so that she can learn to navigate it. Her father is a locksmith and he crafts the houses in the model so that they are detachable and can be manipulated like a puzzle to reveal a secret inner compartment.

Werner is a small blonde German orphan with an exceptional talent in small mechanics–his specialty is radios. Because it is the time of World War 2,  his skills land him a place  in the Hitler Youth. He is young and naive but soon realizes what is really happening with the Third Reich and he begins to make choices of his own, at his own peril. Both of these children hold a priceless treasure in their hands. Will it be found or lost forever? Will it bring fortune or failure?

The story takes place mostly in the ancient walled city of Saint-Malo. The book alternates in narrative between Marie-Laure and Werner. And of course you know that eventually their stories will merge. The chapters also alternate between different time periods, mostly going back and forth between the beginning and the end of the war. The tension builds slowly but steadily as the occupation escalates.

The novel is beautifully crafted and is full of rich detail. Doerr has an interesting descriptive style which sometimes seems overwritten but then suddenly drives forward again. The chapters are very short, creating the feeling of a brisk pace in the midst a fair amount of lyricism. If it is possible for a book to be a “slow page-turner” then this is it; I felt conflicted–I wanted to slow down and enjoy the writing but at the same time I wanted to speed up to find out what was going to happen!!

‘The Vacationers’ by Emma Straub

The VacationersstarstarstarI spent the last week in “armchair” Majorca, enjoying the sort of relaxation, culture and cuisine that only a European island can offer. ‘The Vacationers’ is a romantic comedy, slightly reminiscent of the classics. The Post family is on vacation, packing along flip flops and sunscreen, but also a number of issues and a basketful of secrets.  It certainly is not about “getting away from it all” when they have carried all of their troubles with them. They begin the two week get-away seriously self-deluded that everything is ok, while clearly the cracks are beginning to form and dysfunction is oozing out.

The book started out with a delicious tension lurking just beneath the surface of the pool. But it got downright boring and lost momentum when nothing much every happened, despite the steamy beach scene left to the very end. I wouldn’t consider that a spoiler because almost every good beach read has a steamy scene somewhere, no? One reviewer darkly quipped, “I kept reading in the hopes that someone would drown!” And the insertion of a Rafael Nadal Tennis Centre (under a pseudonym of course) was the final straw in the beach basket – much too cliché. I find it curious that this novel has received many stellar reviews and has topped a number of bestseller lists. Although the story has some original elements and I did enjoy parts of it, I would not highly recommend it.