Category Archives: Four Star

‘Akin’ by Emma Donoghue

Eighty-year old Noah is about to embark on a trip to his birthplace Nice to discover some things about his past, especially about how his family was affected by the war. But he ends up having to pack more baggage than he bargained for. Just before he leaves on the trip to France, Noah is contacted by a social worker who thinks he is the only living relative who can take custody of an 11 year old grand-nephew he has never met, and save him from foster care. Michael needs a guardian for a time until his mother is released from jail. With no options for postponing Michael’s arrival or postponing his trip, Noah decides to take Michael along to Nice, and the adventure begins! Noah is a retired chemistry professor, who has never had children and has lost his wife and Michael is a cocky but vulnerable preteen who has been raised in poor circumstances and has already sustained significant loss in his young life.

Part historical fiction and part comedy, this odd couple set out on a journey which is funny, poignant, and albeit a bit slow, very gently entertaining. The two manage to help each other and irritate each other in oh so many ways, but together they pursue the mystery of what happened to Noah’s mother during the war and forge an unlikely companionship. The story is in no way sentimental or twee, it has a real feel, and in Donoghue’s capable hands is fresh and original.

Donoghue likes to draw from her own experience in her writing, in this case the inspiration for the book came from a couple of years she spent living in Nice with her French speaking partner and their children. Donoghue says she likes to get material for her novels from her children, as she did with Room when her child was 5. Now she has teens and it feels like she took every example of how tweens can be annoying and put them into Michael. 🙂 Although he does redeem himself on more than one occasion, and Noah continually reminds himself that Michael is a good kid, and just needs to be given a chance, considering his upbringing. On the trip they discover that life is full of risk in any generation and every era is marked by love and loss. Here’s a link to a more comprehensive Guardian review: click here.

 

‘The Testaments’ by Margaret Atwood

Here’s something I never thought I would say: “Just read a really fun page-turner by Margaret Atwood!” 🙂

Sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments is a testament to Atwood and perhaps a swan song of her lifelong career. It is narrated by Aunt Lydia, a character from the previous novel; Agnes, a young woman living in Gilead; and Daisy, a young woman living in Canada. Atwood was asked to write another instalment about the chilling Republic of Gilead and remarkably she did, in her twilight years, while caring for a partner living with dementia who has since passed away. That is remarkable.

Though I must admit to finding some of her earlier works unapproachable and perhaps too literarily lofty for me, this one was something for anyone and everyone to enjoy. I do wonder if some of her die-hard fans will be disappointed. Although the subject matter is as sobering as ever when it comes to Gilead, it has a lighthearted feel to it. The Testaments  has already won an award and I’m sure it is flying off of the shelves this Christmas. Indeed I purchased it for one of my family members, but stealthily flew through it first before wrapping it up! I also really enjoyed the tongue-in-cheek humour, especially around Canada and Canadians. I think Atwood had a lot of fun with this one. Way to go Margaret! As always, the Guardian has the best extended review: click here.

‘I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death’ by Maggie O’Farrell

“The best way out is always through.” Robert Frost

But O’Farrell says, oh well, if you can’t go through you can always go around! 🙂 I’ve read one novel by this author, now I want to read more. There were things in her life that she would clearly have gone around, but had to go through and now they have been revealed.

What a unique memoir. It is so astonishing, so elegant and beautifully described, and yet so terrible all at once.  Somehow she makes these seventeen stories chilling and eloquent at the same time. In the audio version, Daisy Donovan captures and conveys the vulnerability and strength of the author. O’Farrell knows how to tell a story and Donovan knows how to read it. I hesitate giving this five stars, only because some of it may be triggering for those who have experienced similar trauma. People will need to talk about this after reading it, so it’s perfect for book clubs.

We are never closer to life than when we brush up against the possibility of death.  There was the childhood illness that left her bedridden for a year, from which she was not expected to survive. A teenage yearning to escape that nearly ended in disaster. An encounter with a disturbed man on a remote path. Her heartbreaking struggle with fertility and miscarriage. Scary near accidents. And, most terrifying of all, an ongoing, daily struggle to protect her daughter — for whom this book was written — from a condition that leaves her unimaginably vulnerable to life’s myriad dangers. Seventeen discrete encounters with Maggie at different ages, in different locations, reveal a whole life in a series of tense, visceral snapshots. The message is simple. Life is precious.

Here’s an excellent review in the Guardian: “I’ve revealed the secrets I’ve spent my life hiding.”

‘The Gown’ by Jennifer Robson

Books become very enjoyable when there are lots of points of contact–places we’ve been to, experiences we’ve had, or activities we are familiar with. The Gown is historical fiction about the women who embroidered Queen Elizabeth’s wedding gown. It brilliantly highlights the postwar era in which the wedding took place and points out how in many ways excitement around the wedding was meant to lift the mood of a war weary country. The novel captures that spirit of hope.

For me it was a treat to read because it was about sewing, embroidery, the city of London, the royal family, and immigration to Canada–all points of contact and interest for me. Three women narrate the story that is woven together so well–a seamstress from France, an embroiderer from England, and a granddaughter in Canada blend their voices to move the story forward. This highly readable novel isn’t only about sewing. It’s also about the value of friendship, the intrigue of legacy, and the revelation of family secrets.

This Canadian author also published an article in Time magazine with interesting background information about the real event as well as Norman Hartnell’s Fashion House commissioned to make the gown. Click here.

‘The Stationery Shop of Tehran’ by Marjan Kamali

This is a unique story set in 1953 Tehran against the backdrop of the Iranian Coup. It’s about a young couple in love who are separated on the eve of their marriage, and who are reunited sixty years later, after both have moved on to live independent lives in America. It’s a sweeping romantic tale of thwarted love amidst the chaos of unrest. There’s really not enough information to classify it as historical fiction, although it does give a flavour of that place during that time.

The novel begins very effectively at the end of the story, when Roya and Bahman meet again, begging the question of what happened all those years ago. As the author flashes back, the story slowly unfolds. Why did these young lovers fail to meet up? How did they manage to find each other again so late in life? What was the truth in the tale and what deceptions may have been at play? Despite being a bit tedious and occasionally clichĂ©, I really liked this book. I did feel hugely sorry for one character, and it’s not who you might think.

‘Jewelweed’ by David Rhodes

This sequel to Driftless, carried on seamlessly with many of the same characters in Words, Wisconsin. I loved the kids in this instalment. They get themselves into some very unique adventures. I worried about Blake who is out of prison but risks re-entry because all of the odds are against him, and very few people are willing to help. There is a budding secret romance and a pastor with a crisis of faith. There is a family not coping with the constant care of two seniors and a very ill child, who enlist the help of a spunky young woman with burdens of her own. The writing is filled with empathy and wonder. As with Driftless, this is not a quick read but the time spent is well worth it.

‘Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, How We Can Learn to Fulfill our Potential’ by Carol Dweck

Darwin said it’s not the smartest or the strongest that survive, it’s the ones who adapt and are the most responsive to change.

This book has a crummy title but an important message. Having the word ‘success’ in the title is completely misleading because it’s not about that at all. With what I know now about the author’s message, it’s surprising she could give her book this title (let’s blame it on the publisher). It’s an older book, I’m apparently a bit late to the party, but I think it’s a good reminder even if you know about this.

The main idea is very simple and is explained well. Perhaps too well since many reviews complain about the repetition in this book. But that’s because the main point is so simple; it has to get repeated over and over in different contexts. The audio version was exceedingly annoying in this regard. However, the message was great and has value for everyone at any age or stage! So my advice for the book would be to read the beginning to pick up the main idea, and then skip to other chapters of interest that deal with work relationships, school situations, friendship issues, etc. I particularly enjoyed the chapters on marriage, the workplace, parenting, and teaching. So let’s get to the point. It’s all about mindset.

Fixed mindset vs. Growth mindset
People with a fixed mindset — those who believe that abilities are fixed — are less likely to flourish than those with a growth mindset — those who believe that abilities can be developed. People with a fixed mindset believe talent is everything and failure is to be avoided at all costs. Having a growth mindset is all about having a healthy attitude towards challenge and being willing to fail if it means learning something in the process. It’s about learning from mistakes and growing from them instead of judging yourself to be either super smart or a hopeless case. It’s about using the right language when you talk to your kids and not setting yourself up for failure in your marriage because your fixed mindset says that because you love each other there will never be any struggle. What went wrong and how can I do better next time? What did you learn today? What mistakes did you make that taught you something? I’m really proud that you picked a difficult subject for your project, you are going to learn so much (instead of advising the easy way out so that they can get top marks). They’ll be more willing to take on bigger challenges with a growth mindset.