The Ingredients of Love

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I found The Ingredients of Love by Nicolas Barreau on the sale table at Munro’s. (The best $5.99 I’ve ever spent!)

It’s the charming story of Aurelie Bredin, a chef and restauranteur.

Aimlessly wandering the streets of Paris after a nasty break-up, she ends up in a quaint bookshop, where she discovers an astonishing novel.

How is it astonishing, you ask. Let me tell you: Aurelie and her restaurant are characters in the book! (I know–how cool would that be?)

Aurelie becomes slightly obsessed with the novel and its handsome, yet reclusive English author. Determined to contact him, she becomes acquainted with Andre, the book’s gruff French editor.

The rest of the novel involves her entanglement with Andre, who holds the key to contact with the mysterious author.

To say anymore would give away too much of this delightful novel.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

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Louie Zamperini was an amazing man.

As a spirited boy he was on the path to delinquency until the support of his brother, combined with his natural athletic ability, led him instead to the Olympics. At nineteen he was the youngest competitor in his event. He didn’t win a medal, but he left the Berlin Games determined to do better at the next games in four years.

His biography would have been the inspiring story of a record-breaking track and field star if World War II hadn’t interrupted his sporting career.

He joined the Army Air Corps. Unbroken tells the story of Louie’s experience as a bombardier in the South Pacific.

At times it’s difficult to read because Louie is such a likeable character and terrible things happen to him.

His plane crashes in the Pacific. Louie and his fellow survivor spend forty-seven days drifting on a rubber raft before they’re captured by the Japanese and interned in a POW camp.

Unbroken doesn’t end with Japan’s surrender, Louie’s liberation and vague implications of happily ever after. It’s a better book than that.

We follow him home and witness his challenges reintegrating into normal life. We know so much more about conditions like PTSD now, yet we still lose returning military personnel to suicide. Back in Louie’s day there no support and he struggled to regain his mental and emotional wellbeing.

I won’t give away too much, but the title is Unbroken and against the odds, Louie does indeed remain unbroken.

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard

001The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard is the first volume of the Cazalet Chronicles–a series of novels about an upper middle class English family.

In volume one, the Cazalet sons along with their wives and children visit their parents’ home in the country. The action takes place over two summers, 1937 and 1938.

The cast of characters is so large that a family tree and list of characters is provided. I found myself referring to this information regularly at the beginning of the novel.

The Light Years reads like a series of inter-connected vignettes. The point of view shifts in each section. While this technique impedes the flow of the novel, it allows the reader to get to know the various characters, including the many children, more intimately than would be possible if a different writing style had been employed. It also helped me to understand the motivation of several characters who, on the surface, are decidedly unlikable.

The Light Years appealed to me for several reasons.

First, it’s a substantial novel. At 578 pages, it’s a brick of a book. (Keep in mind, I like long novels. When I commit to reading something, I commit. Gone With the Wind, my favourite book ever, comes in at over 1,000 pages.)

Second, I’m facinated by England in the 1930’s so The Light Years ticks that particular box for me. But even readers who aren’t especially interested in England between the wars will be engaged by the many details of daily life and family interaction in this novel.

Third, because The Light Years was written in 1990, the author is able to look back on the events of the novel with some perspective. Rather than allowing a history buff and anglophone like me to wallow in nostalgia for this more innocent, slower paced time, Elizabeth Jane Howard points out some aspects of 1930’s life that are better left behind. A glaring example of this is the constraints on the relationship between Rachel, the unmarried Cazalet daughter and Sid, the woman she loves.

There are three more volumes in the Cazalet Chronicles so I’m happy to have lots of easy summer reading lined up.

Living Life Backwards

011Peter Wells who blogs at Counting Ducks sent me an electronic copy of his new novel, Living Life Backwards.

I enjoyed Living Life Backwards and recommend it to others.

It’s a short novel and an easy read. It’s not action-packed, but relies on evolving family relationships and character growth to drive the plot.

The protagonist and narrator, Bill, has married into a close-knit family who live in a seaside village. (My secret dream is to live in a pretty English village so I love this setting.)

Living Live Backwards drew me in and hooked me right from the start. There’s an element of suspense that begins on page one and doesn’t resolve itself until the final chapter.

Throughout the novel Bill reveals snippets of information about himself and the circumstances that brought him into his wife Katie’s life. We also learn about Katie’s extended family, particularly Misty, Katie’s cousin and a pivotal character in the novel.

Living Life Backwards is not all aga saga set in the village. There’s international travel, which makes the over-protective families slightly nervous, and the totally modern concept of internet dating that doesn’t turn out quite as expected.

The ending is surprising, but believeable and satisfying.

Anglophones who love village stories should read Living Life Backwards. So should readers who enjoy character development and gentle suspense.

Room

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I avoided Room by Emma Donoghue for years. I was put off by the disturbing subject matter. A young woman, who was abducted as a college student, struggles to make a life for herself and her young son in their prison, a small sound proof room in a garden shed.

Last weekend, I found Room on the sale table at Munro’s and I decided to give it a try. At $4.99, I’d feel okay about abandoning it if it was too intense.

Although Room was both intense and horrifying, I couldn’t put it down. I haven’t read a novel this compelling for some time and it was wonderful to rediscover the all-consuming joy of being totally caught up in a story.

Room is narrated by Jack, a five year-old whose entire life has been spent in Room with his mother, Ma.

Ma is one of the most devoted parents in literature. Facing impossible challenges, she gives Jack a loving start in life. Their routine includes daily physical activity, toys made of items like egg shells and toilet paper rolls and a regular schedule of normal activities like dusting, laundry and hair washing. Fiercely protective, she puts Jack in the wardrobe whenever their captor, Old Nick makes his frequent visits to drop off groceries and rape her.

Room begins on Jack’s fifth birthday. Old Nick’s behaviour has become increasingly cruel and Ma realizes that life in Room can’t continue much longer. She engineers a daring escape attempt.

I won’t spoil the ending. I’ll just say that in Ma and Jack, Emma Donoghue created two characters about whom I cared deeply. I think you will, too.

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, by Chris Hadfield

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I seem to be reading mostly nonfiction lately.

The title of this one grabbed me. I also admire Chris Hadfield. He’s an astronaut who, as the commander of the International Space Station, used social media to show Earthlings what life is like in space.

With all the negative news about a certain Canadian municipal politician (Torontonians will know who I’m referring to), it’s good to focus on a solid, hardworking Canadian with a razor-sharp mind and squeaky clean personal life (he’s been married to the same person since he was twenty-one!) Chris Hadfield is the type of man who should be a role model to impressionable youth. We might not all be astronaut material, but we can all learn from his persistence and work ethic.

He’s an engaging writer with a fascinating story to tell. He decided to become an astronaut after watching the moon landing on TV in 1969. He didn’t let the fact that Canada didn’t have a space program at the time stand in his way. He just worked doggedly towards his goal. If he made it into space he’d live his dream. If not, he figured he’d still have a pretty good life as a jet pilot.

The book is filled with interesting anecdotes about life on the International Space Station, the rigorous training astronauts undergo and even unglamorous stuff I’d rather not know–like wriggling into a man-sized diaper before embarking on an eight-hour spacewalk or self-administering an enema prior to blast-off. (TMI, Chris–a little mystery is a good thing!)

What impressed me the most about Chris Hadfield?–He focuses on the negative, sweats the small stuff and imagines worst case scenarios! Okay, unlike me, he thinks through solutions to every conceivable problem while I chew my nails and drink wine from a box because the future looks too bleak to contemplate, but it’s affirming to learn that a successful genius (this man gets rocket science) regularly considers the most awful outcome possible.

He also mentions his strong dislike of whining, but nobody’s perfect, not even a talented astronaut/rocket scientist like Chris Hadfield.

Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

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“Balance teaching methods to serve all the kids in your class. Extroverts tend to like movement, stimulation and collaborative work. Introverts prefer lectures, down time and independent projects. Mix it up fairly.” (348)

My boy is quiet. That’s the way he is and there’s nothing wrong with it.

He has a teacher who seems to disagree. The few times we’ve spoken, she’s commented on his personality.

“He’s a good student, but so reserved.”

“He seems to be settling into my class even though he’s quite shy.”

Every positive statement is followed by a qualifier implying she’s assessed my boy’s character and found it lacking because it doesn’t match her own, more gregarious one.

Her job is not to judge my son (or any other child). Her job is to get to know each of her students and teach to their particular strength.

In the old days kids were fed information in a top-down model from a teacher as expert. It was pretty much a sink or swim experience. The kids who did well in this highly structured environment were successful at school. Kids who needed a different approach, not so much.

Teaching has gotten more complicated as we’ve learned more about the brain, how we learn as individuals and how experiences like poverty, abuse or neglect can impact learning.

If this teacher opens her eyes and sees each student as a unique person, she’ll discover my boy’s not the only introvert in the class (studies show one third to one half of us are introverts). She’ll employ strategies to enable him and his fellow quiet kids to reach their potential. While doing that, she can’t forget the extroverts and must also plan activities to tap into their particular strengths. It’s a balancing act that good teachers seem to get intuitively.

She should read Quiet, not just so she can better understand my son, but all the introverted, thoughtful children with whom she will come into contact through her career.

It’s given me lots to digest as a mother, a teacher and an introvert who has always felt like a bit of a loser because I’m just not as social and charming as some of my extroverted friends.

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

034The photo of this book was taken at Munro’s because my copy is too battered and dog eared to sit for a portrait.

This is my favourite book. Ever.

I read it for the first time the summer I was twelve. While other girls my age were discovering boys and make-up, I was at the public library researching the American Civil War.

Gone With the Wind inspired me to begin writing my first novel when I was in grade seven. Ignoring the classic writer-ly advice to write what you know, my novel (Bugles Sang True) was a Civil War epic. Keep in mind I was a kid living in a small mill town in British Columbia. At that point in my life, I hadn’t even visited the US, never mind the South.

My protagonist, a headstrong belle named Erica Stratford coincidentally looked just like me. I was confident Bugles Sang True would be made into a movie and I wanted to ensure I was chosen to play the lead by making her my virtual twin.

I never ended up finishing Bugles Sang True. My first novel is about (wait for it) a Canadian woman who moves to England. Yes, I finally learned to write about what I know.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve re-read Gone With the Wind, but the most recent reading was this spring. As I adult I see past the grand romance of Scarlett and Rhett and I’m appalled by the ugliness of the culture of slavery in the novel. I think it made Margaret Mitchell uncomfortable, too. Ashley shares his plan to free his family’s slaves when he inherits his plantation if the war doesn’t free them first.

Scarlett is a woman ahead of her time. She’s strong, ruthless and intelligent. Although uneducated and bound by the chauvinistic culture of the mid- to late-1800’s, she single-handedly saves Tara and prevents her family from starving and becoming homeless. But for all her street smarts and moxie, she is a deeply flawed character. She doesn’t realize until too late that she’s wasted her entire adult life pining for a man who is totally wrong for her (the aristocratic, intellectual Ashley). Her tragedy is that she doesn’t see that it’s Rhett who could be her soul mate until it’s too late.

Tomorrow is another day, and the haunting conclusion of Gone With the Wind always leaves me hoping Scarlett wins Rhett back.

Joyland by Stephen King

021It sounds weird to say this about a horror novelist, but anything written by Stephen King is a joy to read. His story-telling ability is unrivalled (this man’s imagination is hyperactive!) and his use of language is perfection. I’m sure his books would be studied in university English lit classes if he wrote in a different genre.

My love letter to Mr. King complete, I’ll talk about Joyland. It’s a ghost story, a murder mystery and a coming of age novel about Devin, a sensitive young man experiencing a broken heart. It has something for everyone!

Joyland is set in the early 1970’s. There’s an eerie retro vibe from the opening sentence. Devin is a college student who takes a summer job at Joyland, a carnival in a small Southern town. Descriptions of Joyland are so vivid, I had flashbacks of childhood summer holidays at the PNE.

Tension mounts as older carnie workers tell the story of an unsolved murder on one of the rides. Adding a supernatural twist, the apparition of the lovely young victim often appears at the site of her violent death. One of Devin’s fellow student workers researches the crime and uncovers a string of similar unsolved murders in the years leading up to the Joyland murder. The plot thickens!

I love a good ghost story (who doesn’t?)–add engaging characters, a cool setting and the real threat of a murderer lurking in the shadows and you have a winner of a book. The ending was shocking, satisfying and made me glad I’d found this novel on the Walmart book display.

Books I Adore

003I’m a quiet, bookish type. Although I admire extroverts (they seem to have such fun!), I have given up hope of ever joining their exuberant ranks. My comfort zone is a quiet corner with a thick novel.

Are book worms born or are they created? Researchers haven’t solved the nature vs nurture puzzle. In my case, I can attest that my mother had a hand in moulding me into a book lover. I don’t remember her ever reading to me, but she promoted me reading to myself from an early age.

She signed me up for my first library card the day I started kindergarten and took me there regularly to exchange books. As I got older she provided a constant stream of novels and it wasn’t unusual for me to come home from school to find a new book or two waiting in my room for me.

Back then my taste ran to historical fiction and childhood classics. Favourites were the Laura Ingalls Wilder series, LM Montgomery, particularly the Anne of Green Gables books and anything by Louisa May Alcott.

Books and reading were such a big part of my life that I requested a new bookshelf for my thirteenth birthhday when other kids my age were asking for clothes and make-up.

Over the years my tastes evolved, but the one constant was my love of reading. No matter what else was happening in my life, I could lose myself in a good book . . . until recently.

I’m having trouble finding books and many that I start fail to interest me. This concerns me. I can’t lose my favourite solitary pastime, especially now.

To rekindle my interest in reading, I’m going to post reviews of books I adore.

I’m open to suggestions of great books.