All The Light We Cannot See


All The Light We Cannot See Photo: Simon & SchusterI’ve been tempted by All The Light We Cannot See a few times over the past couple months, and with an upcoming trip to the UK (a pair of nine-hour flights, plus several train trips), I finally caved and loaded it up on my Kindle.

After a couple of months of very sporadic reading (ultraheavy education theory books and ultralight wedding magazines) during my first-ever teaching contract this spring, I felt I was due a good novel, and this striking piece of fiction fit the bill.

It’s truly beautiful storytelling (it won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction). One day, if I can write something half as good, I’ll be a very happy lady. There are two parallel storylines at play here. A young blind girl and her father, a museum locksmith, flee Nazi-occupied Paris in 1940. Meanwhile, an orphaned German boy develops a fascination with radios, which earns him a place among the Nazi military elite.

The pace of the plot is pretty much perfect, and by the time the two storylines converge, I couldn’t put the book down. Coincidentally, I started the novel as Matt and I travelled through Manchester, where we spent a few hours at the Imperial War Museum North, which has a comprehensive chronological timeline display of the impact of both world wars on everyday people. I finished it right after we arrived in London, the morning of our visit to the Imperial War Museum London, an entirely different experience with its comprehensive, stunning and sobering Holocaust exhibition. Talk about being in the right place at the right time. The whole experience made for very interesting – and very thoughtful – reading.

There’s lots to love about All The Light We Cannot See – lyrical, descriptive writing, achingly sympathetic characters, beautifully-imagined settings and the magic of radio. It stayed with me for days.

The Invention of Wings


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.

Life After Life


Life After Life (Photo: Random House)I don’t know what to say about Life After Life, other than that it is rare that I am this disappointed by a book that has received such great press.

I first heard about Life After Life in a spring issue of Chatelaine magazine, where it was described brightly as “Sliding Doors meets Back to the Future.” I love both of those movies, so it made sense that this would be a book that I’d probably love too. It also had a cute fox on the cover. C’mon. Cute fox. How can you not?

Because I’ve been making an effort to be more cost-conscious this spring/summer, I placed a hold on it at the public library about two months ago. At number 63 on the hold list, I didn’t think I’d have a hope of reading this book before the end of 2013, but to my surprise, I got an email about a week ago saying it was ready for me to pick up! I raced to the library to get reading and … was instantly let down.

The book begins in a sort of Groundhog Day style. Ursula Todd is born in England and dies. And then you flip the page. Ursula Todd is born in England and lives. It’s not immediately clear what is going on or why (I actually thought for a moment that the library copy might have been a misprint, because the book kept starting, and starting again).

Even once I figured it out, it was hard to hold my interest. Every time Ursula “dies” she gets a re-do, and each time, she finds herself increasingly closer to meeting Hitler. A mission to assassinate Hitler isn’t problematic on its own (actually, it’s pretty interesting), but it takes so long to get there, and the story is so contrived, that I just really didn’t find myself caring about it.

I had a hard time caring about Ursula, too. She’s not particularly warm, or engaging, or interesting. And even when she was in danger, I find that I didn’t care about her, because she’d just die and get a do-over again.

Chatelaine’s review loved Atkinson’s sharp references to philosophy and history (and so, for that matter, did the New York Times), but that wasn’t enough to keep me engaged. I got lost in it, but not in a fun way. I was just lost. I feel like this is one of those polarizing novels that people say is good because they’re not entirely sure what else to say about it.

It may be well-written, and it can have all the philosophy, politics and history in the world within its pages, but I did not enjoy reading Life After Life. I was glad when it was over, and I was glad it came from the library so I could get rid of it when I was done.

The Light Between Oceans


The Light Between Oceans (Photo- Simon & Schuster)When you’re stranded at home for a few days because your city is underwater, there’s nothing better than a good book. And with nothing but time on my hands this weekend, The Light Between Oceans was the perfect read.

This spring, I had to take a horrendous biology course as a prerequisite for the Bachelor of Education I’m starting in September (science courses, go figure, are not part of the requirements for a Bachelor of Journalism. I haven’t touched biology since high school and I would not describe it as a strong suit). June 20th was my final exam downtown, and by the time I got the C-train home around mid-day, the flood waters had made most of Calgary impassable.

What better time for a new book? When I got home, my mom presented me with a copy of The Light Between Oceans as a congratulatory gift for struggling my way through my biology course. And with my evenings free from studying the parts of a cell, and an unexpected day off due to flooding on Friday, I read. And read. And read.

The Light Between Oceans is a beautiful, complicated Australian novel about the moral dilemma faced by Tom Sherbourne, a lighthouse keeper and returned WWI solider when a baby and a dead man wash ashore in a boat on the remote island where he and his wife Isabel are stationed.

Tom, who keeps meticulous records, wants to alert the authorities immediately, but Isabel, who is grieving from a miscarriage and desperate to be a mother, wants to keep the infant and raise it as the couples’ own.

The result is a beautifully-woven, haunting story of the grey areas that can so often blur right and wrong. There are no easy answers for Isabel and Tom, and the novel is beautifully written.

I’m so glad I read this when I had some time to process it properly. It’s not a light bedtime read, but it is a brilliant novel that I would highly recommend.

Anne of Avonlea


Anne of Avonlea (Photo: Sterling Publishing)After I reread Rilla of Ingleside for a Canadian history paper I wrote last month, I dug out my old Anne of Green Gables box set to get reacquainted with one of my oldest literary friends.

I’m not alone in my Anne love. Apparently, the Duchess of Cambridge is also a big fan (I’m a fan of Kate too, and this made me like her even more). The Anne books, along with Gone With the Wind, are among my very favourites – particularly the first four (Anne of Green Gables, Anne of Avonlea, Anne of the Island and Anne of Windy Poplars). My mom read at least two of them out loud to me when I was a little kid, and in 1995 when I was 10 years old and my family went on an east coast road trip to New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, I made my dad and brother spend a couple hours at Cavendish Figurines, where I got to dress up like Anne (I must have read about this place in some kind of guidebook, because I don’t think we had the internet at our house until at least 1999).

In 1995, this happened.

In 1995, this happened.

Because I recently re-watched the Kevin Sullivan Anne of Green Gables miniseries (which yes, I still have on VHS), I thought I’d skip book one and instead tuck into Anne of Avonlea.

Reading the Anne books as an adult is a much different experience than reading them as a kid, and each time I go back through them, I find something new that resonates with me. Anne of Avonlea picks up when Anne is 17 and largely chronicles her adventures teaching in the Avonlea one-room schoolhouse. Kind of apt for an education student-to-be, hey? Yes, she’s a fictional character and this book was written more than a century ago, but Anne experiences some of the same fears and emotions that I know I will in my own classroom, and in its own way, that’s very comforting.

Actually, comforting is a very good way to describe the whole experience of re-reading any of the Anne books. My friend Dipika in the UK, who I still do some freelance writing work with from time to time, mentioned to me on Facebook not too long ago that she found her recent re-read of Anne of Green Gables to be quite a comfort. I think she’s absolutely right. To me, Anne’s a bit like a bowl of soup on a cold day or a phone call from a long-lost friend. And when you add in a dash of Gilbert Blythe (who, in spite of being a completely fictional character, may have been the first boy I ever really fell in love with), how can you go wrong? I love this book every time I read it.