Golden Boy

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Golden Boy (Photo: Simon & Schuster)This is a very long-overdue post. August sort of got away from me – I took on some exciting freelance writing assignments (including some for Avenue magazine, a well-regarded local Calgary publication, that I’m quite thrilled about) and unfortunately, one of the downsides of getting paid for my writing (well really, the only downside) is that blogging sort of takes a backseat. Classes started up again this week too, which has meant a few days of chaos and stress. Don’t worry though – I haven’t stopped reading. You can expect reviews for Jane Christmas’s excellent travel book What The Psychic Told The Pilgrim, the beautiful book of poetry by Cynthia Rylant called God Got a Dog and the other books I muddled through in August shortly.

Today though, I want to tell you about Golden Boy, which is one of the most gripping novels I’ve ever read. I can’t believe that Abigail Tartellin is only 26 (or that she was waitressing when she got called by a publisher for the rights to this book). She’s amazing, and she’s only going to get better – and quite frankly, she puts small-time writers like me to shame. She has a real gift and her book is brilliant.

I gave up my bookstore job this fall in favour of a different opportunity with slightly better pay and more sociable hours, but I’m sticking around once a month to run a book club for teenagers there in the fall. So I attended the Fall Gala at Indigo Signal Hill on Saturday night to promote my new venture, and my friend Meg couldn’t recommend Golden Boy highly enough. Convinced by her enthusiasm and glowing review, I had a look and I was intrigued.

Max is the 16-year-old intersex son of a high-profile golden couple in a satellite town of Oxford in Britain. Max is well-adjusted, funny, compassionate and everything a 16-year-old should be, until a shocking betrayal forces him to re-examine everything he thinks he knows about himself.

I won’t give anything else away, except that it’s twisty and brilliant and poignant and sad and very, very well done. I have barely been able to put it down since Sunday, and have been reading it in fits and starts around my ethics and law readings for my education classes. I just finished it ten minutes ago and my face is streaky from mascara and I feel like I need to hold everyone in my world just a little bit tighter.

Please read Golden Boy. I think I may have found my new favourite novel of the year. Thank you again, Meg, for recommending it!

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.

I Am Malala

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I Am Malala (Photo Credit: Hachette Media Group)I Am Malala has been in the headlines a lot this week after promotional events to launch the book at Peshawar University were scrapped in late January. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t know about any of this until today, when I finished the book and did a bit of Googling to find out more abut this fascinating and well-spoken young woman.

I didn’t read I Am Malala because of the news headlines this week. Back in the fall, my educational psychology instructor played the Jon Stewart interview with Malala Yousafzai for my class as an end-of-year wrap-up and I added it to my reading list for the holidays. Then, Matt picked up a copy of I Am Malala over the Christmas break and left it with me. I’ve actually been reading it on and off for the better part of the last month. It’s not a difficult read in terms of language, but the subject matter is heavy – after all, she did get shot by the Taliban. I tried to read it before bed a couple of times, but it left me feeling restless and unable to sleep. I guess that’s kind of the point.

What can I say about this incredible, incredible book? At 16, Malala has experienced more than most people will go through in their whole lives, and she has handled incomprehensible adversity with grace, intelligence, confidence and plenty of brains. At 16, I could have written my entire life on a the front and back of a piece of lined looseleaf and there wouldn’t have been very much to say. Malala has enough for an entire book and then some.

At many points, I was moved to tears. “We human beings don’t realize how great God is,” Malala writes. “He has given us an extraordinary brain and a sensitive loving heart. He has blessed us with two lips to talk and express our feelings, two eyes with which to see a world of colours and beauty, two feet which walk on the road of life, two hands to work for us, a nose  which smells the beauty of fragrance, and two ears to hear the words of love.” What an incredible young lady. You can read more about her girls’ education charity, the Malala Fund, here.

In my opinion, there are also two ‘other heroes’ of this story. One is Ziaddin, her dad, who is a passionate advocate for education for girls in a culture where this is definitely not the norm. Malala tells the story of her family – and the history of Pakistan (which I’ll freely admit to being mostly in the dark about before I read this book) – with a graceful matter-of-fact approach and a little bit of sharp, observant humour.

The second ‘other hero’ here is Dr. Fiona Reynolds, who happened to be in Pakistan at the time Malala was shot and risked her own personal safety to travel to Peshawar because she wanted to help an advocate for women’s education. Later, Dr. Reynolds acted as Malala’s legal guardian when she was airlifted to Birmingham for further medical treatment. Around the time I Am Malala first arrived in bookstores, the Huffington Post ran this article on Dr. Reynolds, which I think is a testament to her bravery, quick thinking and huge heart.

The writing in I Am Malala is very raw. You can feel the fear that the Taliban instilled in Malala and her family – and the loneliness of her new life in Britain. That was the thing that struck me the most about this book. Even though Malala is the youngest ever nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, and addressed the United Nations on her 16th birthday (I was too chicken to try for my driver’s license on my 16th birthday, although I did have dinner on a restaurant patio with my friends sans parents, which seemed very grown-up. And very insignificant when compared with all this), really, she’s just a lonely 16-year-old kid who wants to go home and can’t. My heart would break for her, but Malala knows exactly what she is destined to do – inspire people all over the world to take up the cause of education.

“So let us wage our global struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism,” she told the United Nations in July last year. “Let us pick up – let us pick up our books and our pens. They are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.” Malala’s message is too important to be kept quiet. I encourage everyone to read this beautiful book.

Perfect

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Perfect (Photo: Random House Canada)I read Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry last year and really enjoyed it. It was a hand-me-down from my mom’s book club, which can go either way (some of their choices, like Gone Girl and The Husband’s Secret, have been brilliant, while others, like Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, have not been so great).

So when Val, who I work with at the bookstore, chose Rachel Joyce’s new novel, Perfect, as one of her staff picks, I figured it was worth a read. I’ve been craving a little taste of the UK and there’s something about British books that I just love. Perfect is quite different than Harold Fry (this is good, because who wants to read the same thing over and over again?). The story alternates between Jim, who is in his 50s, suffers from OCD and lives in  Cranham Village, and flashbacks to the summer of 1972 when best friends James and Byron unwittingly set off a series of unlikely and catastrophic events when they realize that two seconds will be added to the world clock.

The Guardian did a really nice and accurate review of Perfect, which it called “more ambitious, darker and more honest” than Harold Fry. I’d be inclined to agree. It’s not entirely a happy book, although I was thoroughly entertained by it (and who says all books have to be happy, anyway?). Perfect is a story of friendship, but it’s also a story of family love, manipulation, good and evil – and it’s also a bit of a mystery with a twist ending I genuinely didn’t see coming.

I’ve been plugging away at this in the evenings (alternating with an amazing piece of nonfiction that I’ll probably finish up on the weekend) since classes began in mid-January, and I would say that it’s a pretty quick and easy read. I probably could have polished it off in a night or two if this pesky little thing called homework would stop getting in the way! I’d recommend this book to anyone who likes contemporary British fiction, gentle mysteries and books with lots of talking points.