Category Archives: Four Star

‘Anything is Possible’ by Elizabeth Strout

This is a must-read for Elizabeth Strout fans who have read My Name is Lucy Barton. As with Olive Kitteridge, it is a collection of linked short stories featuring characters from Lucy Barton’s home town. It’s not a sequel per se, more of a companion novel, but nevertheless an amazing back story giving portraits of people living in this fictional small town. I guess she wasn’t quite done with them yet! Because it isn’t a sequel, either book could be read first. Anything is possible when one human makes an authentic connection to another. One reviewer called this book a requiem to small town pain!

“Here, among others, are the ‘Pretty Nicely Girls,’ now adults: One trades self-respect for a wealthy husband, the other finds in the pages of a book a kindred spirit who changes her life. Tommy, the janitor at the local high school, has his faith tested in an encounter with an emotionally isolated man he has come to help; a Vietnam veteran suffering from PTSD discovers unexpected solace in the company of a lonely innkeeper; and Lucy Barton’s sister, Vicky, struggling with feelings of abandonment and jealousy, nonetheless comes to Lucy’s aid, ratifying the deepest bonds of family.”

Strout is one of my favourite authors just because her stories are so real and unsentimental yet evoke such feeling and conflict. I’m not thrilled about investing in short stories, so I do expect to be drawn into a story immediately and completely, and in this Strout does not disappoint. If you are an Alice Munro fan, you’ll love Strout. They both have a way of capturing deep nuance and hope in everyday life: love and loss, reconciliation, complicated family bonds, resentments big and small, indignities, disappointments, grace, kindness, etc. and there is not necessarily a happily-ever-after or a definitive ending involved. Strout respects the reader enough to allow them to fill in some of the blanks.

‘Where the Wind Leads: A Refugee Family’s Miraculous Story of Loss, Rescue, and Redemption’ by Vinh Chung with Tim Downs

“I am a refugee. My family went to sleep in one world and woke up in another, and more than anyone in my family I was trapped between those worlds. I was born in Vietnam, but I was not Vietnamese; I was raised in America. I grew up Asian in character but American in culture, a citizen but always a refugee. I had no lessons from the past to guide me, no right way to do things in the present, and no path to follow to the future.”

This is the incredible personal account of a refugee who fled from certain death and found flourishing life. It is a real-life rescue story, a poignant family drama, and a telling of recent world history. Many North Americans will remember the “boat people” who became thankful recipients of resettlement to a new life in a new land through resilience, determination, and many helping hands along the way. But what was it like for a young boy in a large family, suddenly separated from all he’d ever known, thrust into a different culture? Why was his Dad, who used to be a wealthy manager, now working a menial job? How would he be affected by this survival and redemption? How does a refugee see himself differently from an immigrant who chooses to leave?

Vinh Chung, originally from China, was born in South Vietnam, just eight months after it fell to the communists in 1975. His family was wealthy, controlling a rice-milling empire worth millions; but within months of the communist takeover, the Chungs lost everything and were reduced to abject poverty and forced to leave. They had no choice but to take their chances in a boat on the pirate infested waters of the South China Sea.

Rescued by a World Vision mercy ship, Chung went on to become a Fulbright Scholar, Harvard graduate, successful surgeon, and philanthropist. Chung is now a WV US board member.  The book includes some history of the early days of that organization under Stan Mooneyham and operation Seasweep. There’s a wonderful collection of photos included in the back of the book.

‘The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life’ by Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher is a columnist for The American Conservative, author of several books, and blogger about topics like religion, politics, film, and culture. He was brought to his knees by the death of his little sister Ruthie. When she was diagnosed at the age of forty with a hugely aggressive cancer, Rod returned to the small town where he grew up but had left behind in his youth. When he returned, he was surprised and humbled by the great love he witnessed in the community. His relationship with this town was fraught and his ties to family sometimes misunderstood and thin. Through a hard won lesson, Dreher learned that living in a small town did not mean living a small life. Rod wrote this memoir as a tribute to his sister, being brutally honest about loss and love, faith and family, struggle and sacrifice. He tells this true story well and honestly, discovering even things about himself along the way that he did not know. What he did know in the end, was that his sister’s death taught him how to live.

I once heard American writer Rhoda Janzen speak about memoir at a writer’s conference. She said memoir should be more than the story of a life, it should point to something beyond, some further resolve or purpose. She did this beautifully in Mennonite in a Little Black Dress as does Dreher in this book.  The books are very different stories but come to very similar conclusions. Both authors, in an unsentimental and thought provoking manner, rediscover their roots and humbly realize the warmth and joy of coming home.

NPR Interview with the author:
A Grieving Brother Finds Solace in his Sister’s ‘Small Town’

‘Perfect World’ by Ian Colford

Tom Brackett has not had the perfect childhood. His mother began acting strangely after the birth of his sister Beverly and his Dad is distant, although not uncaring. One day he is whisked away from his parents without warning or explanation and is sent to live with his grandmother. Eventually we learn that his mother has a serious mental illness and his father is alcohol addicted.

Now Tom has created the perfect world for himself, despite all odds; he has a good job, a supportive wife, two kids, a mini-van, and even a golden retriever. But then, one day, something overcomes him to commit a sudden and terrifying act of violence that changes everything.

This is a compassionate look at the life and mind of someone trying hard to control his own life while struggling with mental illness. It is beautifully rendered and unflinching. Mental illness is handled much better now-a-days than say 50 years ago, but still needs more honest exposure, understanding, and open conversation. This book delivers a glimpse into a personal journey (albeit fictional) that is brutal, but not without hope. In what is  actually more of an extended short story, Colford provides one view into the complexities of mental health, and it is just that. He doesn’t give any advice or definitive answers or happy endings, and for that I applaud him.

In researching this Canadian author, on his blog, I ran across his idea of what a good read should look like, and I wholeheartedly agree:

“…an engaging story told with verve and imagination and a sensitivity to language. I want to be pulled into the lives of characters I care about. I want to turn the pages because I have to find out what happens next. But I don’t want to be comforted or coddled. I want to be surprised, maybe even shocked, and definitely thrown off balance. If the writer can challenge me by shattering my expectations while also bringing the story to a satisfying conclusion, so much the better.”

‘The Dry’ by Jane Harper (Aaron Falk #1)

This very well written debut mystery novel had me gripped on the first page and kept me going throughout, with plenty of twists and turns, right to the end. It’s one of those gems that I can recommend to anyone and everyone. Good pacing, great characters, and evocatively described scenes. Set in the Australian outback, in the middle of a crippling drought, the author made me feel the overwhelming heat and taste the dust and despair in the air.

Tragically and oddly, it seems Luke Hadler has killed his wife and small son in his own home, leaving his infant daughter untouched. A murder suicide almost seems plausible from a desperate man in a town that is dying. But when Aaron Falk arrives back to the place of his youth to attend his friend’s funeral, he is confronted with questions about what actually happened. Was this murder connected to secrets from their childhood? Should he stay to investigate when all he wants to do is run away as he had to before?

‘Everyone Brave is Forgiven’ by Chris Cleave

There had to be a really good reason for me to pick up yet another novel about WW 2 since I’m not a fan per se. Although I must say, I could list some really good ones I’ve read in the last number of years, and I imagine so could you. Since this was a book club assignment and Cleave is one of my favourite authors, I actually signed on quite willingly.

Everyone Brave is Forgiven is basically a wartime love story focusing on the blitz, the Siege of Malta, and racism against blacks in the UK at the time. He wanted to link to his grandfather who served in Malta, and his grandmother, who was an ambulance driver and school teacher. The character of Mary is inspired by Cleave’s grandmother, yet it is not her story. When war is declared, Mary North leaves finishing school unfinished, goes straight to the War Office, and signs up. She thought she would make a rather good spy, but bewilderingly ends up as a teacher for the misfit children who were not shipped to the countryside. She ends up fighting a war within a war, defying prejudice to protect the children her country would rather forget.

This author has an amazing talent for fiction. His writing is beautiful, smart, insightful, and fresh. Although often dark, the novel has humour threaded throughout which, for me,  has the effect of making it more poignant. I read his other books a long time ago, but I think they were better paced than this one. It did drag a little in the second half (a common problem with well researched historical fiction). In Little Bee, he brings his own experience of growing up in Cameroon to questions of identity and belonging as a third culture kid. In Gold, he tackles the competitive world of sport and how fraught winning and losing can be. I haven’t read Incendiary yet, but I will soon. There was a movie made of it with Ewan McGregor.

His grandfather died before he could read the manuscript because Cleave didn’t want to give it to him till he’d edited it completely. He learned a hard lesson with that and said, “never be afraid of showing someone you love a working draft of yourself.”

‘The Break’ by Katherena Vermette

Just finished one of the contenders for this year’s Canada Reads. Candy Palmater will be defending The Break during the week of March 27 – 30 when five celebrities battle out the question, “What is the one book Canadians need now?” Here’s my prediction…although I have only read one of the other five contenders, I started three of the others and found them hard to get into. The Break is compelling and puts indigenous women and their issues in the spotlight so I not only think it will win, but that it deserves to win.

The novel begins with a young mother witnessing a violent crime on a barren cold “break” in the city…we’ve all seen it, a long empty swath slicing through forest or subdivisions with nothing more than robotic looking hydro towers holding up electrical wires for as far as the eye can see. The attack in ‘the break’ becomes the focal point of the novel with everything else connected to it.

This Métis author, in her first novel, forges a very real look at indigenous people struggling to integrate into urban centres while still having a strong relationship to the land. The author creates empathy for the indigenous women but equally helps the reader get beyond various stereotypes, to see that the white police officer who appears jaded is not a bad man (albeit oblivious to his own racism), he’s just been doing a hard job for a very long time. And the homeless juvenile delinquent has been abandoned herself and therefore lashes out–she is living in the winter of Winnipeg but also in the winter of her soul. A young indigenous mother marries a white guy and moves into a better neighbourhood believing it will bring her and her children safety, when all it brings is alienation and self-doubt. “Vermette offers us a dazzling portrayal of the patchwork quilt of pain and trauma that women inherit, of the big and small half-stories that make up a life.” (Globe and Mail)

It is a story of brokenness but also of amazing strength and resilience, the importance of family, and how to break out of old patterns of understanding or behaviour. There is such beauty and such rift in this very complicated community in North Winnipeg where the author grew up. Her ability to capture such a comprehensive snapshot of Canada from various perspectives makes it my strong choice to win Canada Reads 2017.

Check out a CBC interview with the author, which is definitely worth a visit. Just click on this link: How Katherena Vermette turned a terrible vision into a visionary debut novel