Category Archives: Fiction

20. love anthony (Lisa Genova)

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Thanks to Laura, who recommended this book!  It was a great read for the long weekend.  It combined the story of a mother (Olivia) grieving the loss of her son who had autism and the tale of a wife (Beth) grieving the separation from her husband following an illicit affair.  The stories intertwine in the beautiful Nantucket setting as the characters struggle with their problems on the beautiful beach island.

Olivia has exiled herself to the solitude of Nantucket Island in the winter, trying to come to terms with her son’s death and the failure of her marriage.  As the winter changes to spring, the desolation of the island changes to its frenetic summer pace and Olivia begins life anew, noticing the daffodils and starting a photography business.   She reflects on  her son and her marriage which succumbed to the the stress of caring for a child with special needs seeking to understand  the meaning of her son’s short life.

Beth has been frustrated with her marriage.  She is annoyed by all the little habits of her husband (even the ones that she had found endearing when she met him) as she tries to maintain a nice home for their three daughters.  When she receives a card in the mail announcing her husband’s infidelity her life dramatically changes.  She realizes that she is missing herself and rediscovers her creativity as she begins writing a novel.

Olivia and Beth’s paths cross during a photo shoot on the beach.  Beth learns that Olivia had been an editor and eagerly asks her to review her novel when it is finished.  The two become friends, learning about themselves and unconditional love through the writing and editing process.  They discover their similarities and gain understanding of their own situations.

The author Lisa Genova is also the author of Still Alice (early-onset Alzheimers) and Left Neglected (acquired brain injury) who has a PhD in neuroscience from Harvard University.  She combines her scientific knowledge with beautiful stories increasing the readers understanding of these health concerns.  Genova’s fourth book, Meet the O’Brien’s is being released this week and is about the devastating genetic disease, Huntington’s.  Look for a review of this during the month of April as it is my May book club read.

This was a great book!  Genova does a wonderful job weaving fiction with the challenges of autism.  I hope that her writing helps create understanding and compassion for individuals and families living with the autism spectrum.  I would highly recommend all three of her books and can’t wait to read Meeting the O’Briens.

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78. All My Puny Sorrows (Miriam Toews)

9780345808028After hearing many positive reviews (Globe Books and CBC Books), i thought that I would give this Canadian author another read.  Reading about the challenges growing up in a Mennonite community in A Complicated Kindness was not the most engaging read but with all the positive reviews, i picked up All My Puny Sorrows.  This book was not an uplifting choice to ring out 2014.  Although it is a fictional story, the author is said to have based much of the materials on her own experience of losing both her father and her beloved sister to suicide.  The topic is very serious in a time when mental health is a prime focus in health care.

The story is narrated by Yolanda (Yoli) and shares her experience growing up with her sister Elfrieda (Elf) in a Mennonite town in the Canadian prairie province of Manitoba.  Elf is the elder sibling, a talented pianist who struggled with happiness and was striving to end her suffering by ending her life.  After dealing with multiple hospitalizations and unsuccessful suicide attempts, Yoli took responsibility to try and keep Elf alive – flying back and forth from Toronto to Manitoba and trying to convince Elf that life was worth living.  While she acted as caregiver, Yoli struggled with her own life, leaving two teenage children at home, dealing with her divorce and sleeping with a man in each province.  It seemed that each family member in the story was dealing with their own challenges.

In the end, Elf was successful in her quest and the family had to learn to deal with her decisions and heal.  The book was serious and melancholic but not my best choice to end out the year.  It was a powerful and honest account of mental illness and the struggles that some families deal with but it was not inspiring and was not a book that I struggled to put down.  My heart goes out to the author who has clearly struggled with her own loss and hope that help is available for others going through similar situations.

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76. The Marrying of Chani Kaufman (Eve Harris)

chani-kaufman-can The Marrying of Chani Kaufman was nominated for the Man Booker Prize and tells the tale of a curious Orthodox Jewish girl who is next to be married.  Although the story is a bit slow at times, it is very interesting to learn about the mores and customs experienced by this religious group.  The story blends the lives of Chani,  her parents, Baruch (her husband to be) and the Rabbi and his wife, Rivka, ending on the wedding night.

Chani grew up as one of eight daughters in a very busy, devout and poor household.  She was spirited and at times found herself in trouble at school.  She had met and turned down a number of suitors before meeting Baruch.  Once engaged, she met with the Rabbi’s wife to prepare for her marriage and had many questions that both her mother and the Rabbi’s wife could not (or would not) answer.

Baruch, saw Chani at a wedding and was very keen to meet her despite the disapproval from his own mother.  Through a matchmaker, the couple met although his mother tried to discourage their relationship due to the differences in social status.  Baruch was persistent and after four dates asked Chani to marry him.  The groom to be was also very curious about the wedding night but the young couple were left to discover each other without any guidance or education.

The Rabbi and Rivka had met in Jerusalem during a time when neither was orthodox.  The Rabbi grew into the devout religion and his wife chose to follow, giving up freedom of dress, diet and accepting Orthodox ways or life, marriage and child rearing.  After dealing with loss, her own son’s challenges and a feelings of unhappiness in her marriage and lifestyle, the Rabbi’s wife struggled with her own choices.

As the characters struggle with their commitment to their faith balanced with their duties and their strong sense of communities they learn more about their own strengths.  The novel is interesting and educates the reader about the Orthodox faith.  It gives a perspective of other’s religion balancing faith, community and choice.

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75. Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mandel)

StationElevenHCUS2 At a time when influenza and flu shots are rampant in the news, Station Eleven seems like a plausible situation when a flu epidemic drastically changes the world.  It is set in multiple North American cities including Toronto and starts with the death of Arthur, a famous actor playing King Lear, in the Elgin Theatre.  At the same time, the Georgian flu attacks its victims quickly and with deadly consequences, leaving 99% of the population dead.

In a world devoid of modern conveniences such as electricity, cars and air travel, the novel follows the lives of individuals who had been connected to Arthur.   Kirsten, a child actress who had witnessed his death, survived and became a member of the Travelling Symphony.  This group hiked across the countryside playing music and acting out Shakespeare for those that remained, huddled into primitive communities fending for themselves.  Kirsten would scavenge abandoned homes, looking for remnants of Arthur including articles in old magazines.  Clark, an old friend, was part of a community that lived in an airport and started his own Museum of Civilization with artifacts such as iPhones and computers.  Arthur’s ex-wife Elizabeth and their son Tyler also survived and became part of a community.  These characters carried with them the memories of time with Arthur and eventually converged.

The novel makes the reader reflect on the possibilities of life as we know it changing so dramatically in the span of a couple of days. The characters lost many loved ones without a chance to say good bye.  They had to learn to live in a world free of the technology, walking for transportation and hunting for food. It is easy for the reader to picture the abandoned homes decaying as the natural world started to fill in around them.

“It’s surprising how quickly the condition of living out of a carry-on suitcase on a bench by a departure gate can begin to seem normal.”

The novel cuts back and forth between past and present.  As Arthur finally learns what is most important to him, his life is cut short without a chance to see his young son.  After his death, across the world, individuals have to focus on the basics of survival despite loss and dramatic life style changes.  This unique story is a timely one to read at the end of a year and makes one reflect on what is really important as we move into 2015.  Emily St. John Mandel is a Canadian having grown up in British Columbia which is where Arthur had also spent his childhood.

“Time had been reset by catastrophe.”

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74. Mãn (Kim Thúy)

man-fall2014-thumb-175x272-377190After enjoying the novel Ru, I was very excited to read the next book by Kim Thúy which was translated from French to English.  The story alternates between Mãn’s early life as a child in Vietnam and her present life, as a wife and mother, in Montreal.  This Canadian author has shared that this is her most personal work to date.

“Mãn, which means “perfectly fulfilled,” or “may there be nothing left to desire,” or “may all wishes be granted.”

During the Vietnam War, Mãn follows her Maman during her work as a spy.  As she ages, she is married to a man and sent to live in Montreal.  Like her name, Mãn, lives a life of satisfaction.  The couple open and run a Vietnamese restaurant together.  This restaurant becomes very popular and patrons enjoy their daily specials which are reminiscent of their homeland.  Mãn enjoys the freedom of her life and cooking in Montreal but is trapped in her “satisfied” life – between her homeland where she would not longer fit in and her new life in Canada where her children are growing up.

The restaurant leads to the development of a cooking school and to a published cookbook.  Through her success, she travels and meets the love of her life in France.  Luc is a married, Vietnamese cook who shares her love of the special dishes of their childhood.  Again, Mãn lives in two words – between the steady life with her husband and children and the passionate love she feels for Luc, who has his own family.  While the relationship is gently shared, the reader wonders if her husband had any idea?

This is a thoughtful story built of short chapters which capture snippets of time and history.  The emotions and feelings are often described through the painstaking traditional dishes that Mãn takes time to make for others.  It is interesting to learn more about Vietnamese culture and food through her novel and although I enjoyed this story, I would recommend that others read Ru first.

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73. The Rosie Effect (Graeme Simsion)

rosie-effect-9781476767314_lgThe sequel to the Rosie Project continues to entertain and amuse the reader.  In the second novel, Don and Rosie have moved to New York and are expecting a baby (BUD aka baby under development).  With Don’s social awkwardness, a whirlwind of unusual activities ensue over the gestation period, which, leave the readers scratching their heads.

Don struggles with the idea of becoming a father and in his own style begins a research project.  He designs a safe meal plan for Rosie and in a misguided attempt to study children is arrested in a park.  As a part a comedy of errors, he ends up seeing a social worker (one that he had previously insulted) and as part complicated web of lies asks a friend to impersonate Rosie at the counselling session.  He does this to avoid upsetting his wife but, of course, the web of deceit starts to unravel.

The couple are challenged in dealing with the silly situations as they prepare for the birth alongside an interesting group of friends.  Each of their friends are going through their own challenging situations adding to the confusion.  Don takes responsibility for trying to help his friends to sort out their own problems.  During the course of the novel, Don saves his friend’s business, helps two fathers repair their relationships with own sons and is involved in part of a suspected bomb threat on an airplane.

The story is really a comedy of errors compounded by Don’s black and white responses and social awkwardness.  It is funny and refreshing in it’s uniqueness.  In some ways, it reminds me of the constant drama of the Bridget Jones Diary novels.   As a reader who appreciates happy endings, I enjoyed the closure and the link to my favourite Christmas movie:  It’s a Wonderful Life.  This is a fun novel to enjoy over the holidays!

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72. The Rosie Project (Graeme Simsion)

9781405912792_4After reading numerous reviews about the Rosie Project, I started this novel without any idea of what would unfold between the pages.  For some reason, after seeing a book cover with a bike on the front, I had the wrong idea that the story was about a man who is enamoured with his bicycle, named Rosie.  This could not have been further from the truth.

Although a bit slow to start, The Rosie Project tells the story of Don, a socially inept genetics professor.  He designs and starts a research project to find the perfect match for a wife.  After past negative dating experiences, he uses his scientific research skills to devise a survey.  He gets feedback on his survey from his few trusted friends and tries out some of the questions at a speed dating night.

Of course, the Wife Project does not necessarily work the way Don hoped.  He ends up meeting Rosie through his friend.  It turns out that she had not completed his survey – not only that, she is a smoker which was a non-starter for Don.  She is dealing with her own challenges, trying to find her father and Don assists her with her investigation, resulting in the dubious collection of DNA from a group of her potential fathers.  The two have interesting experiences and Don learns that surveys do not necessarily help to find the perfect match.  While Rosie appreciates his “notable behaviour”, Don struggles to become more main stream trying to change for Rosie.

The book is unique and easy to read.  It is an atypical romance from an awkward, man’s perspective.  It shows that sometimes those that are remarkably intelligent or book smart, struggle with other areas such as social graces.  Individuals have their own strengths but if they set their minds to a task, they can learn and grow.  I look forward to reading the second book, The Rosie Effect, and learning what happens with Rosie and Don!

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71. The Boston Girl (Anita Diamont)

boston-girl-9781439199350_lgAfter enjoying The Red Tent, I was very excited to read another novel by Anita Diamont.  Both stories include themes of feminism and strong female friendship but The Boston Girl was a totally different but enjoyable experience.  Although it was slow to start, the conversational tone and strength of the main character Addie, kept me engaged and reading right through to the end.

The novel began with 85 year old, Jewish grandmother (Addie) being interviewed by her youngest grand-daughter and namesake.  Addie described her early days, living in a tenement with her Mameh and father who had emigrated to the United States.  Addie had been born in 1900 and life was not easy for Addie and her two sisters.  School was not a priority, they had to work at a young age and to deal with Mameh who complained about everything and who never seemed happy.

As Addie grew, she had to quit school although she was bright, wanted to learn and had goals of becoming an independent woman.  She spent time with the Saturday Club, a library group of single, likeminded women.  Addie had a number of jobs and slowly continued her education.  She eventually met the love of her life and shared that experience with her grand-daughter.

This book describes a proud Jewish woman, the beginnings of feminism and the strength of families. It shares some Jewish heritage and gives a historical perspective of the early 1900s including emigration, influence, war and the depression.  It is another book that girls should read, sharing the experience of woman that came before us and making us realize that like Addie said “Don’t let anyone tell you things aren’t better than they used to be.”

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70. The Mistletoe Promise (Richard Paul Evans)

mistletoe-promise-9781476728209_lg To start off my holidays, I picked up the Mistletoe Promise which was listed on the New York Times Best Seller List this week.  It was a light romance which told the story of a lonely travel agent, Elise, who met a handsome lawyer in the food court with an interesting proposition – to spend time together at holiday events with a contract lasting until Christmas Eve.

The couple signed a legal contract which specified the time spent together, daily gifts and payment for meals and events.  They enjoyed each other’s company and Elise began to open up about her challenging past with her abusive father and unpleasant ex-husband.  To her surprise, Elise begins to enjoy spending time with Nicholas and starts to trust him while secrets of their pasts start to surface.

The story was a light and easy to follow.  It did not require any deep thought and was a very quick read.  Although romance is not my first choice and it was a bit predictable, it was festive and I am a sucker for a happy ending!

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69. Lost in the Barrens (Farley Mowat)

200px-Lost_in_the_barrons_coverEsteemed Canadian author Farley Mowat died this past May, a few days before his 93rd birthday.  Having read Never Cry Wolf in grade 8, it was more than time to read another one of his many tales.   He was a respected environmentalist and was reported to have sold 17 million books, translated into 52 languages.

The book begins with Jamie, an orphaned teen, leaving Toronto to move in with his Uncle Angus who lived in the North.  His parents had been killed in a car accident and Jamie had been “living” in a boarding school before making his trek North.  After joining his uncle, he grew to love the North and became best friends with a Cree teenager named Awasin.

The Cree village has a visit from a Chippewan chief who reports that his tribe is starving.  The boys travel North to the barrens with the tribe and end up on a deer hunt.  During the trip, the boys are left to wait for the main hunting party and their curiosity gets the best of them.  They travel downriver searching for the Great Stone House and their canoe is ruined by rapids which nearly take their lives.  After this disaster, they become separated from the rest of the party and end up stranded in the dangerous barrens and on an adventure of their lives.

The boys are very industrious and prepare for the winter using knowledge that they combine from Jamie’s upbringing in Toronto and from Awasin’s Cree teachings.  They problem solve and learn from trial and error as they build a shelter, prepare food, sew warm clothing from skins which ensures a chance at their safety in the midst of the brutal winter weather.  They struggle against poaching wolverines, fight a bear and befriend two sled dogs who help lead to their rescue.  The boys work together, stay alive and eventually return back to their homes safely.

It is a story of two boys coming of age in the great Canadian North.  They must persevere and collaborate if they are to reach safety.  The text is beautifully written and portrays not only Canadian heritage but the vast land that we must appreciate.  This is a story that would be terrific in high school English  or history classes.

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