North of Normal

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North of Normal (Photo: HarperCollins Canada)You know what’s great about a vacation? Reading time.

Right now, Matt and I are spending a few days at his parents’ cottage in Nova Scotia. We’re actually car-less for a couple of days, and we’re kilometres away from anything, so unless I’m out for a run, we’re BBQing or napping off the jet lag and the after-effects of our red-eye flight, we’re out on the beach reading.

I wasn’t sure about North of Normal at first. It’s been out for a little while, and it always seems to be a popular pick at the bookstore. There was a time in May/June where we could hardly keep it in stock. I think what turned me off was the whole wilderness-girl-turned-supermodel angle. Unique, to be sure, but I wasn’t sure it was me.

This is why the Kindle is so great. I stocked up on a couple of books before leaving home (I wasn’t sure about the Wi-Fi capabilities at a cottage, although it’s been quite reliable, and I prefer to travel with my Kindle because it’s so light and easy), and the Kindle edition of North of Normal is pretty reasonable – certainly cheaper than the physical book. So all of a sudden, a book I was kind of on the fence about became a book I was really excited to read.

Person’s memory of her earliest years is vivid, striking, and graphically shocking. I wouldn’t recommend this book to people who are bothered by profanity, sex or drugs – although this is part of Person’s message. Her unconventional childhood – growing up in the Canadian wilderness in British Columbia and Alberta in a tipi with her free-love hippie grandparents, her teenage mother and a series of unstable aunts and uncles – doesn’t make for familiar or light reading.

But the story Person tells – of perseverance, survival and drive – is an important story to tell. As she grows up and begins to learn how to overcome her upbringing and move beyond her self-professed “crazy” family, she realizes that she has the skills and tools she needs to survive in an adult world at just 13 years old.

I enjoyed reading North of Normal more than I thought I would. I especially liked the local connections to Calgary and Morley. And most of all, I enjoyed reading this book in two sittings right here:

Who wouldn't enjoy reading with a view like this?

Who wouldn’t enjoy reading with a view like this?

A Long Way Home

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A Long Way Home (Photo: Penguin)When I first saw Saroo Brierley’s memoir A Long Way Home on a table at the bookstore, I knew it was a story that I needed to read.

This book has been getting a lot of great buzz since it came out (most recently, a film deal off the back of the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. Looks like the movie will be called Lion and production will begin in August). All you need to do is skim the back to know that it’s a captivating story.

Saroo had become lost on a train in India at the age of five. Not knowing the name of his family or where he was from, he survived for weeks on the streets of Kolkata, before being taken into an orphanage and adopted by a couple in Australia.

Despite being happy in his new family, Saroo always wondered about his origins. He spent hours staring at the map of India on his bedroom wall. When he was a young man the advent of Google Earth led him to pore over satellite images of the country for landmarks he recognised. And one day, after years of searching, he miraculously found what he was looking for.

How can you pass this kind of story up?

I think what drew me in – aside from the fact that Brierley’s circumstances and story are extraordinary – is that we’re nearly the same age. I’m 29, Brierley is in his early 30s. We grew up (mostly) with the same sense of Western privilege, the same access to technology. But I can’t even imagine what it would be like to lose my family, to not know where I came from.

This is a really quick read, and I would recommend it to anyone. I polished it off on a single flight to Nova Scotia (Matt and I are spending a couple of weeks on the east coast of Canada, visiting his family, catching up with friends and getting my Anne of Green Gables fix on Prince Edward Island), and I was struck by Brierley’s self-awareness, resourcefulness and tenacity.

Anyone who has a fascination with technology – especially Google – survival stories, resilience and the ‘smallness’ of our very big world needs to read A Long Way Home. I’m so glad I did.

The Invention of Wings

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The Invention of Wings (Photo: Penguin)I actually read The Invention of Wings a couple weeks ago, but I got so distracted by the Robert Galbraith novels (and three jobs, and a weekend of moving Matt to Calgary, and the Calgary Stampede, and … excuses) that I didn’t get around to posting about it yet. But here we are, better late than never!

This is the latest offering from Sue Monk Kidd, and it has been very well received. It is a Heather’s Pick at Chapters/Indigo stores in Canada, and an Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 featured title as well. I really loved her book The Secret Life of Bees, which I read one summer when I was home from university, and I liked – didn’t love, but liked – The Mermaid Chair. So I was eager to pick up a copy of The Invention of Wings. Plus, I had read a brief write-up about it in a magazine – possibly Chatelaine – and I was intrigued.

The plot centres around two women – one white and one black – over 35 years in the early 19th century. On Sarah Grimke’s 11th birthday, she is horrified to be presented with her own slave – 10-year-old Handful. The story that follows – with each girl narrating alternating chapters – is a journey through the turbulent, racially-charged American South in the 1800s.

It’s a risk, as this great New York Times review notes, for a white, Southern writer (even in the 21st century) to take on the voice of a slave, but I think the chapters written in Handful’s voice are the strongest in the book. But this isn’t the only big issue Kidd tackles. The Invention of Wings also explores two very different mother-daughter relationships, feminist issues, religion, love and social justice inequalities.

All of these are ambitious topics on their own, so together, the book sometimes feels a little bit heavy. I was discussing it with my friend Erin this afternoon (she just finished it) and we agreed that we both had trouble at times with the uneven pacing. The beginning, where Sarah and Handful grow into young women together, is pacey and short – in fact, it’s over much too soon. The later chapters – where Sarah and her sister Angelina campaign for equality – are interesting and important, but lack the pace and punch of the early pages.

The character of Sarah is a fictionalized version of the real Sarah Grimke, and much of the later events of the book are based on Kidd’s meticulous research into her life. This might be why it feels like it drags a bit here – it is obvious that Kidd wanted to do this remarkable woman justice, and she probably had much more real-life detail to weave in from Sarah’s adult life than her childhood.

It’s a heavy read (because the subject matter is heavy), but I think the fact that I finished it two weeks ago and it’s still on my mind is a good sign. If you like Kidd’s work, or you’re interested in novels about race and the South (The Help springs to mind), you’ll want to give this one a try.

The Silkworm

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The Silkworm (Photo: Hachette Book Group)The best thing about starting a new series of books is that if you time it right, you can binge a little bit. I do this with TV all the time (I was a latecomer to Orange is the New Black on Netflix, so I was able to binge-watch season one about three months before the second season came out. This also explains a bit of quiet time on the blog in early June). I also did it with the first three Harry Potters. And now, because it’s taken me so long to discover JK Rowling as Robert Galbraith, I’ve been able to do it with the Cormoran Strike novels.

I bought The Silkworm pretty much immediately after I finished The Cuckoo’s Calling, and I’m so happy to report that it’s a consistent follow-up in what (I hope) will be a long-running series. These must be fun for JK Rowling to write.

I actually liked the mystery in The Cuckoo’s Calling better than The Silkworm, but that’s just personal preference. Galbraith does character development in the same way Rowling did for the Harry Potter books. It’s a slow simmer with really great payoffs. At the end of The Silkworm, we still don’t know why Robin mysteriously dropped out of university (or why this might have anything to do with her burning desire to be a detective in her own right), or if the hold that Strike’s ex-fiancee Charlotte still has over him will continue now that she has married another man. The characters in the Cormoran Strike novels are fully-formed people, which makes them a pleasure to read about.

Like The Cuckoo’s Calling, this isn’t a heavy read. But it’s pacey, fun, surprising and perfect for summer. I love reading these books, and can’t wait for the next one. If the best thing about starting a series other people have been reading for awhile is that you can binge, the worst part is waiting for more.

The Cuckoo’s Calling

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The Cuckoo's Calling (Photo: Hachette Book Group)It should come as no surprise to anyone that I’m a sucker for the Harry Potter series. When I was in high school, or possibly just about to start high school, my dad – who was then the principal of a small rural K-8 school – came home with the first two Harry Potter books during the summer holidays.

I had heard about the Harry Potters, but had dismissed them as kid stuff. But when my dad asked if I would please quickly read the first one and help him decide which grade it was most suitable for, I said I would. After all, I’m a quick reader, it was a free book, and it was summer break. So I brought Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone on a weekend camping trip and was hooked (I guess, on reflection, this story also shows plenty of evidence that I would fall into teaching one day. What 15-year-old kid gauges the age-appropriateness of school library books?).

Only four Harry Potter books were available in the summer of 2000, and I blazed through them all in about a week, sharing them with my brother and my best friend. My parents have a really hilarious picture of the three of us sitting in lawn chairs next to a campfire, each with our noses in a Harry Potter novel. They were brilliant. By the time the next two came out, I was working in a bookstore and got to slice open the box of new Harry Potters at midnight. The women who make up my current book club (on hiatus for a few months because everyone but me is having babies – Monique just had a lovely baby girl and Courtney is expecting her second little one) were the same girls that hosted elaborate Harry Potter-themed parties in high school. And when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out in 2007, I was a recently-graduated intern reporter/researcher/producer for the CBC in London, England. I helped produce a lot of the coverage the CBC broadcast about the book launch from the UK, and attended a midnight launch at an awesome children’s bookstore, which I am pretty sure was The Owl & Pussycat.

In my post-Potter withdrawal, I waited eagerly for JK Rowling to publish something new, but I was so bitterly disappointed in the humdrum misery of The Casual Vacancy that I actually didn’t finish it and I asked for a refund on my Kindle. I wasn’t expecting witchcraft and wizardry from her adult novel, but I was expecting something more than an ordinary tale about ordinary people who weren’t even all that likeable. After that, she sort of fell off my radar. I knew she was writing under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith thanks to the news headlines and the scandal about her publisher’s lawyer’s wife’s loose-lipped friend. But I don’t often gravitate to crime novels, and The Casual Vacancy was so disappointing that honestly, I didn’t really care.

But fast-forward a couple of years. I work in a bookstore again, and this month, The Silkworm – Galbraith’s second book – hit the shelves. And my coworkers went absolutely bananas for it. At least three people expressed great shock that I hadn’t climbed right on the Galbraith bandwagon yet.

So after an entire weekend of shuffling my feet and shaking my head every time an excited work friend asked me if I had read The Silkworm yet, I decided to bite the bullet and go back to the beginning of the Cormoran Strike series – The Cuckoo’s Calling. Because of all the hype about The Silkworm, the Cuckoo’s Calling paperback only retails for about $11. It was a risk I was willing to take.

And guess what? I LOVED it. I picked it up after work on Saturday, started reading on Sunday night before bed and polished it off late in the night last night. I’m suffering for it today – I’m exhausted – but I stayed up all night for Deathly Hallows. Staying up until 1AM for The Cuckoo’s Calling didn’t seem like that big of a stretch.

It’s definitely not a kids’ book – there’s a lot of swearing, a bit of sex, some domestic abuse and some very dark subject matter (it is, after all, a murder mystery). But it’s completely absorbing. One of my coworkers wasn’t wrong when he said that he got lost in it the same way we all got lost in the Harry Potters. It’s obviously not the same – it’s adult fiction that is firmly grounded in reality – but Rowling’s (Galbraith’s?) gift for description, character development and a pacey plot is firmly on show.

I especially loved that Robin, her lead female character, is a temp. This summer, temping is my dayjob – and if I could get an assignment half as interesting as Robin’s, I would count myself lucky. Robin should have gone to journalism school. She’s a natural.

I admit that I came to this one reluctantly, but I am thrilled to say that it was well worth $11. It’s an excellent summer read, and I can’t wait to dive into The Silkworm.