Category Archives: Four Star

‘Out of My Mind’ by Sharon Draper

(Age 10+ ) Melody has cerebral palsy. She can’t walk or talk so people tend to think that she isn’t smart, or fun, or someone who you can be friends with. But Melody is the smartest kid in the school, has a photographic memory, sees colour in music (synesthesia), has a great sense of humour, and she’s brilliant in so many ways that people never get to see because communication is so hard for her. The best thing about Melody is that neither she nor her parents allow her to be defined by her illness and the best thing about this book is that it really gives the reader a glimpse of the challenges and misunderstandings that are common to families living with special needs.

Reminiscent of Wonder by R.J Palacio, even though it is classified as a Young Adult novel, it is one of those amazing cross-over books that adults will love as well: easy to read, but with powerful insights and very affecting.

‘Only Child’ by Rhiannon Navin

I love it when novels with a difficult subject matter are narrated in a child’s voice. The innocent description makes a story less overwhelming and gives a unique perspective. The child’s voice can bring an element of tenderness, awe, and even humour to life’s most heartbreaking situations, exploring big emotions with simplicity and fresh insight. Examples you may know are The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, Room by Emma Donoghue, and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne.

This book is especially poignant because the child has been largely abandoned by a grieving family when his older brother has died in a school shooting. Already a quiet introverted child, Zach retreats even further to try to cope with his memories of the shooting and the loss of his brother. When his parents remain absent and continue to struggle with grief in their own dysfunctional way, Zach’s courage, honesty, and integrity find a way to save his family from the darkness.

‘Esther the Wonder Pig’ by Steve Jenkins and Derek Walter with Caprice Crane

“The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that’s wrong with the world.” Paul Farmer

Warning: you may never eat fragrant bacon or a succulent pork chop again, after reading this book, or at the very least, you might begin thinking about going to a more plant based diet! 🙂

One day Steve Jenkins came home with a gift to surprise his partner Derek. Since they already had a couple of dogs and cats, he thought he would get an interesting boutique pet–a micro pig. Well, don’t believe everything you read on online. It turns out that the seller of this cute little piglet did not tell the truth and Esther the mini-pig would grow into a 650 pound farm animal and would change her owners’ lives forever! By the time they figured it out, it was too late. They had already fallen in love with Esther.

Living in Georgetown, Ontario they were terrified because of zoning laws, that Esther would be removed from their home, as well as the impracticality of having a massive pet in the house was becoming increasingly evident. The solution they eventually came to was genius. They bought a farm and started a sanctuary that rescues and rehabilitates abandoned and abused farm animals. According to the Hog Blog, they now have 64 residents: pigs, cows, birds, goats, a donkey, a horse, sheep, rabbits, and of course their own dogs and cats. There is a huge team of volunteers and donors who help to keep the place running and the Ontario farm is open for visitors if you’d like to go and see for yourself!

The sequel Happily Ever Esther carries on seamlessly from the first book, focussing on how these sanctuary owners and accidental animal activists managed in the first four years. I listened to the audio book which is narrated by Steve himself. Anyone who has ever moved, knows that adjustment doesn’t happen overnight. In this case it wasn’t just living in a new place, but also learning about how to run a farm. Even though Steve is a real estate agent, his eagerness had blinded him to the serious amount of work it was going to take to get the farm, house, and barn up to the standards necessary. But the couple met their new challenges with the same resilience, grace, and love it took to learn how to live in a residential home with a 650 pound farm animal. In addition to rescuing animals, their aim is also to win hearts to a vegan lifestyle through example, positivity, humour, and kindness–no judgement here, just guidance and open conversation. Their website is worth a visit: Happily Ever Esther Farm Sanctuary.

‘Homes: A Refugee Story’ by Abu Bakr Al Rabeeah with Winnie Yeung

“That’s how it was in Syria; when we heard an explosion, we ran towards the chaos. Often the police and ambulances were late arriving, if they arrived at all, so we took care  of each other.”

This is an important memoir written by Iraqi teenager Abu Bakr Al Rabeeah (pronounced: Abu ba-CAR al Rah-Bee-ah) with the help of his teacher Winnie Yeung. It is a book that I think every Canadian would benefit from reading and I think it deserves to win Canada Reads 2019.

Whenever we see news footage of Syria, with all the broken buildings, bombed out neighbourhoods, and hear about the random violence that the place has suffered from for so long, it seems impossible to imagine how it was for people to be living there in the midst of a civil war. Bakr has done just that. He has told the story very honestly and vividly. “We all gained skills that we could not have imagined. Knowledge that we never really wanted to know filtered into our lives. Our ears could pick out the differences between mortars, grad rockets, and car bombs. We could tell the high notes of the metallic smell of fresh blood on the streets from the low reek of a corpse waiting for days to be found in the rubble.”

Wise beyond his years because of his circumstance, Bakr also speaks simply as a normal teenager about going to play video games with his cousins and soccer with his friends. He was just 10 when the conflict began and his memories are childlike, yet riveting because his days were marked by the juxtaposition of living the life of a normal teenager in the middle of a war zone.

What I like most about the book is his honest perspective about how it was when he came to Canada as a refugee. When he was living in constant danger he dreamt of a life where he could safely live and move and go about daily activities. But when a new home in Canada became a reality, it was far from easy, albeit safe. He speaks of homesickness and a host of unexpected and different fears to deal with like fitting in, learning language, and building a new life in a foreign culture. Though totally understandable, these emotions also made him feel ashamed and ungrateful for the opportunity he had been given to begin a new life in safety. Homes features a remarkable young man and a compassionate teacher who have given Canadians a window to understanding the refugee experience.

‘The Pearl Sister’ by Lucinda Riley (The Seven Sisters #4)

This series is an epic saga; a delicious blend of contemporary and historical fiction. I keep wondering how the author can maintain the momentum, but she has done it once again. And each instalment has been wonderfully unique.

Cece, the quiet sister who was never far apart from her sister Star, has been frustrated by her inability to find herself or her niche as an artist. In the wake of a perceived  abandonment by her sister, she decides to follow the clues left to her by her dear father Pa Salt. Following nothing more than a name (Kitty Mercer known as the “the pearling pioneer”), geographical coordinates, and an old black and white photograph, her quest brings her to Australia (via Thailand) where she not only discovers her family, but also her inner self. I liked how Cece’s new link to an Aboriginal culture where story-telling and art are major forms of communication, make her more accepting of her dyslexia. I loved the descriptions of Australia as harsh and unforgiving, but also full of heart, soul, and opportunity.The plight of indigenous people is considered, as well as the ways of the early settlers: both are treated with respect by the author. Riley intertwines established history with imagined backstories that are thoroughly engrossing. Lucinda Riley’s research is very thorough and her website provides information about the real stories behind the books. For that background information, here is the link.

‘Virgil Wander’ by Leif Enger

When you eat something delicious, it’s not uncommon to eat more slowly. You resist the urge to wolf it down because your senses tell you that this is something special and deserves lingering and savouring. This can be true for reading as well.

It’s been ten years since Enger’s other hugely successful novel Peace Like a River. Virgil Wander is not a fast read and has a few loose ends, but is not cumbersome. It is character driven and takes some time to unfold, but Enger’s sentences are rich and surprising; he’s funny, thoughtful, whimsical, and is a master storyteller. It’s the ordinary stuff of life that he makes extraordinary in this novel.

Virgil lives in Greenstone, Minnesota on the shores of magnificent Lake Superior, the largest freshwater inland sea in the world. In some ways the town is rather inconsequential and perhaps even dying, falling on some hard times. Strange hard luck sorts of things keep happening that suggest something sinister is going on. There’s plenty of symbolism to pick apart and themes to discover: about the raven, and the sea, and a man walking on water. I wonder if the author’s choice of the name Virgil refers to Dante’s guide through hell? Certainly he wanders in his attempt to get back on his feet after an accident that propels the reader straight into the book at the beginning!

Virgil Wander’s car flies off the road one snowy night into icy Lake Superior. He survives but his language and memory are altered and he emerges into a world no longer so familiar to him. Virgil begins to piece together his personal history but also the lore of this broken town, with the help of a cast of unforgettable characters—from Rune, a twinkling, pipe-smoking, kite-flying stranger investigating the mystery of his disappeared son; to Nadine, the reserved, enchanting wife of the vanished man, to Tom, a journalist and Virgil’s oldest friend; and various members of the Pea family who must confront tragedies of their own. Into this community returns a shimmering prodigal son who may hold the key to reviving their town.

 

‘Washington Black’ by Esi Edugyan

“There could be no belonging for a creature such as myself, anywhere; a disfigured black boy with a scientific turn of mind and a talent on canvas, running, always running, from the dimmest of shadows.”

It is no small feat for an author to win the Canadian Giller prize twice (only three have ever done so, and one of those was Margaret Atwood) and be short-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2018. Award winners are not always readable, but this one certainly is. An epic tale of a boy on the run, I have never read a slavery story quite like it. And I was so curious to find out why there was an octopus on the cover! This literary page turner is full of beautiful writing, delightful characters, interesting quests, and thoughtful reflections on humanity and the meaning of freedom.

When Washington Black, an eleven year old field slave is falsely implicated in a the murder of someone on the plantation, he must flee. His good fortune is having been recently chosen as a manservant to the owner’s eccentric brother, a naturalist, explorer, and abolitionist. Together the unlikely pair travel to the Arctic and beyond in search of adventure and invention.