Author Archives: Joanne Booy

‘Little Fires Everywhere’ by Celeste Ng

“All her life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. It scaled walls and jumped over trenches. Sparks leapt like fleas and spread as rapidly, a breeze could carry embers for miles. Better to control that spark and pass it carefully from one generation to the next, like an Olympic torch. Or, perhaps, to tend it carefully like an eternal flame: a reminder of light and goodness that would never–could never–set anything ablaze. Carefully controlled. Domesticated. Happy in captivity. The key, she thought, was to avoid conflagration.”

When a book starts literally with a house on fire, you do sit up and pay attention! In the opening scene, three teenagers are sitting on a car, watching their family home burn down, while the youngest in the family has disappeared. She’s not still in the house, she’s suspected of lighting the fires. At that point I was hooked, and the novel kept me well entertained throughout a lot of airmiles on my way back from New Zealand–definitely a nice story to get completely lost in.

Celeste Ng seems to enjoy writing about dysfunctional families and she is definitely getting better at it. This one was well crafted, and a cut above the other one of hers that I read called Everything I Never Told You. I think her character development has improved and she has created a bit more suspense. I’ve noticed this title popping up on quite a few lists of favourite books of 2017 and I think it is not undeserved. This is a great one for book clubs with lots to discuss!

‘The Curiosity’ by Stephen Kiernan

Stephen P. Kiernan is an author of fiction and nonfiction. He is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University and the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and an award winning journalist. His books are beautifully written, this one is a literary thriller. The Curiosity was Kiernan’s  debut novel in 2013 and I also enjoyed another one of his called The Hummingbird earlier this year.

A team of scientists working on reanimating creatures from hard ice in the far North, stumble upon a man who has been frozen for a hundred years. Against all odds he is awakened in the present day and finds so many things have changed…and yet what hasn’t changed is that the greatest thing in life is still love.

The Curiosity features a scientific process called cryonics. The way the novel plays with the science and weaves it into the novel, reminded me of Michael Crichton’s books–scary and fascinating because it all sounds so plausible. The characters are unforgettable,  and the novel touches on all aspects of this type of scientific breakthrough–media, ethics, politics, protestors, greed, jealousy, but also focuses on humility, humanity, kindness and love.

Though I’m usually not too fussed about endings, I had a strong feeling after finishing this book that the author might have ended it differently. Wondering why he didn’t, I thought I would just ask him and I got the nicest reply. He was so gracious about my alternate ending suggestion, and took the time to thoughtfully answer my query. I was very impressed. Thanks for being available and willing to discuss, Stephen Kiernan. It’s what I love most about reading, talking about the book afterwards, and what a treat to have a conversation with the author himself!  The Baker’s Secret is next on my list and he said he thinks I’ll be happy with that ending! 🙂 He also said there’s one more book in the works which has a brilliant ending, so even more to look forward to!

 

‘Precious Cargo’ by Craig Davidson

With tickets already secured for the second day of Canada Reads 2018, I want to try to read as many books on the short-list as possible before March! This year’s theme is: One Book to Open Eyes.

Precious Cargo is a memoir of a young man’s temporary job as a bus driver for special needs kids. Davidson’s book is inspirational and funny. He is honest about his initial fear at spending so much time with a bus full of students with so many physical and emotional challenges, and admits he took the job just because he needed the money. But Davidson’s journey ended up being much more significant than the drive to school and back. Those kids taught him about ‘self-acceptance’, a lesson he needed to learn to have the courage to be a writer after all.

I applaud this story because our society needs to support those who have special needs and not to stigmatize them.  So many amazing people and their families achieve great things against the odds despite a special need of some kind. And yet those kids want to be treated just like any other kid.

Although I appreciated Davidson’s journey and commend his compassionate approach to his job and the entertaining way he tells us about his year on the bus, what I did find disappointing was not hearing from the kids themselves. It was a story about them, not from them. So even though I struggled a bit with the book being more Davidson’s journey than the kids’ journey, I’m glad those with special needs will have a voice at the Canada Reads 2018 table. Let Canada’s eyes be opened to this very important topic and our behaviour as a society. Let acceptance and support be what opens our eyes!

‘Saints and Misfits’ by S.K. Ali

The Canada Reads shortlist is out! I started reading from the longlist already, and I am sad that this one didn’t make the cut. I’ve never read a book from the point of view of a Muslim teenage girl before, and I think this Young Adult debut novel written by a Toronto based teacher, was very much in line with the Canada Reads 2018 theme: One Book to Open Your Eyes. It seems to me that we could use more stories from and for Muslim women living in Canada.

The voice in this girl-power story features Janna Yusuf dealing with her parents divorce, trying to fit in at school where a lot of people don’t understand her religion, and navigating adolescence in the best way she can. A boy at school who she’s been crushing on likes her back, but Janna knows her family will not approve, and another who is well respected in the Muslim community, assaults her at a friend’s party…who are the saints, misfits and monsters? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

The importance of this novel is capturing authenticity and nuance in Muslim life and getting away from unhelpful stereotypes. Ali has done a great job of giving the average Canadian teen some tools for understanding the diversity in our society. I loved this remark from a Goodreads review, Softlykaz wrote: “Seeing yourself represented in a book when you live in a world that sometimes puts you in a box and being able to identify with the MC is the equivalent of walking in the cold and then suddenly the sun hits your face and it’s like a warm hug you didn’t ask for but it happened.”

 

‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ by Gail Honeyman

 This is a beautiful heartfelt debut novel which at first glance seemed similar to The Rosie Project or Me Before You, but in the end was much more than a story about an unlikely romance. In fact the book is not about romance at all, which is why I really liked it. It’s an affecting book about deep human connection and how community and genuine compassion can heal, like in A Man Called Ove. Looking at a number of similar novels recently, I think publishers know that sad/funny/quirky characters are memorable and intriguing–Eleanor is no exception, though I hesitate to liken this novel to any other because it has its own strength and value. Thanks for the recommendation Laura, I loved this one!

Eleanor Oliphant struggles with appropriate social skills and tends to say exactly what she is thinking. She does her job well at work, chats with her Mother once a week, but on the weekends her companions are frozen pizza and a big bottle of vodka. However, if you ask her, Eleanor’s life is fine, just fine, completely fine, thank you very much. She doesn’t need anything else in her carefully timetabled life of avoiding unnecessary human contact. But everything changes when she meets Raymond, a bumbling and deeply unhygienic IT guy from her office. Together they rescue Sammy, an elderly gentleman who has fallen unconscious on the street. The story takes unexpected turns and is entirely unpredictable.

‘Jabari Jumps’ by Gaia Cornwall

Jabari is finished his swimming lessons and has passed his swim test. Now there is one more thing he wants to do, but … maybe he should do some stretches first. Even though it looks easy, when Jabari is faced with the height and depth of the jump itself, he is going to need some courage. His wise Dad comes to the rescue with the best encouragement of all. He tells Jabari to think of it as a ‘surprise’ rather than a scary new thing, and that makes all the difference.

When I was taking piano lessons, my teacher Judy taught me a valuable life lesson on courage. When I was afraid that nerves would hamper my piano exam, she said something that has stood me in good stead ever since. She said, “Instead of dreading it, just try looking forward to it. See it as something that you can’t wait to get to.” Like Jabari, the positive twist of thinking of the scary thing as a ‘surprise’ was the key to helping him make the big splash.

Gaia Cornwall loved swimming when she was little and Jabari Jumps is her first picture book. I loved the illustrations which are beautifully done in warm water colours! The pictures capture the excitement and fun of a day’s outing to the pool. Road tested by a teacher friend of mine, kids love this book, evidenced by the neat student work they produced. Here is a sample!

‘Hum If You Don’t Know the Words’ by Bianca Marais

The dedication to this novel of South Africa, drew me in immediately and hinted at the beautiful perspective in this work of fiction:

“For Maurna, my beloved Old Duck, and for Eunice, Puleng and Nomthandazo who taught me that even though human beings can be segregated, their hearts cannot because love is colour-blind and can walk through walls.”

The Soweto Uprising of 1976 leaves both Robin, a young white girl, and Beauty, an Xhosa teacher, grieving unimaginable loss. Their parallel interwoven narratives tell the story of racial conflict and the emotions and tensions at the heart of apartheid-era South Africa. In the aftermath of tragedy, Beauty comes to care for Robin and the two forge a bond through deep personal losses. But Robin knows that if Beauty reunites with her daughter, Robin could lose her new caretaker forever, and that is something she cannot bear. She makes a desperate decision with devastating consequences. Readers who enjoyed The Help and The Secret Life of Bees, might like this one as well.

Good character development and an authentic knowledge of the country of South Africa are strengths of this novel which is highly readable and has, in my opinion, been left wide open for a sequel. Bianca Marais studied at the University of Toronto and now lives in that city, but is originally from South Africa and has done volunteer work in Soweto.