Friday, April 24, 2015

"Written in the Stars" by Aisha Saeed

Naila Rahman has grown up with conservative immigrant parents who have always allowed her the freedom to make her own decisions in all areas except for one - marriage.  As is their cultural tradition, Naila will have an arranged marriage, her parents choosing her husband for her.  

While Naila has always been the perfect daughter, doing well in school and being respectful of her parents, she is hiding one secret from them that will change her life forever if it gets out.  Naila is in love with Saif, a boy at school.  And though Saif is from the same background as she is, her parents will never allow the relationship.

When they do find out about Saif, their anger at Naila can’t be contained.  Convinced that she has turned her back on everything they have taught her, they take her on a trip back home to Pakistan.  But this isn’t a vacation for Naila and her family.  They are going there to find her a husband and if they do, Naila will not return to America.  

Will Naila be able to escape a marriage she doesn’t want to be a part of it and make it back to Saif?  Or has her fate already been determined for her?

Written in the Stars, by Aisha Saeed, is a heart-wrenching young adult novel, about a clash of cultures and a young woman’s determination to make her life her own at the sake of family and tradition.

This is such a moving book.  Even though it is not my culture, I have such a personal connection to it because I know many women from the same background as Naila.  And of those women, some are in happily arranged marriages, some in difficult arranged marriages, some who were able to choose their own marriage from the start, and some who had to fight to choose their own marriage.  This is a very complicated issue for those of us who don’t have the practice of arranged marriage in our culture.  But I think we can all understand a little bit what it is like to want to make your own path when others are trying to forge it for you.

The characters of Naila and Saif are the kind of characters I want in a young adult novel.  They possess a maturity that a lot of people don’t think teenagers are capable of these days and their young romance definitely took me back to my high school days.  On top of that, they represent the many teenagers who find themselves caught between the culture they live in and the culture their parents grew up in.  Saeed writes these characters brilliantly.

From there, this becomes such an emotional novel.  Naila’s parents go to great lengths to get her to do what they want her to do.  It’s not that Naila is willingly being disobedient but there is great pressure on her parents to do what they think is right according to their traditions.  I think the strength of this novel is not that it paints the parents or the culture out to be a terrible thing, but that it looks at it honestly and cautiously.  

There was so much in this book that was heart-breaking for me because on a daily basis I encounter girls like Naila and people like her parents.  For the most part, these issues work out for the best of both sides but there were will always be girls forced into the situation like Naila was.  I commend Saeed for writing such an honest and brilliant novel.  I can only imagine how much it means for girls in Naila’s situation to be able to see their stories on the page (ahem, why we need diverse books.)

I highly recommend this book.  This story could have been told in a number of ways and in different genres but the young adult genre was the way to go.  This is one YA novel that adults should definitely be reading.  The style may not be what you typically read, but the story will move you and educate you.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

"AsapSCIENCE" by Mitchell Moffitt and Greg Brown

What would happened if you stop sleeping?  Are long naps or power naps better?  Is television binge-watching bad for us? (I don’t think I want to know the answer to that one.)  These are the questions that were never answered in science class, but apply much more to our lives than many of the things we did learn.  

From the creators of the popular scientific YouTube channel AsapSCIENCE, comes a new book that will answer all of your most pressing science questions.  AsapSCIENCE: Answers to the World’s Weirdest Questions, Most Persistent Rumors, and Unexplained Phenomena, by Mitchell Moffitt and Greg Brown, is a hilarious and fascinating book that explains the true science behind our world.

This is a great, engaging book that makes the science behind everyday life fun and easy to understand.  Moffitt and Brown write with ease and humour, accompanied by fantastic illustrations, on a wide range of topics from brain freeze to sleep.  Nothing is off limits, even sex.

I had actually never watched the YouTube channel before I read this book but I picked it up because while I was never good at science in school, I enjoy learning about everyday science.  This book is perfect for someone like me.  

Some of the questions answered are old wives' tales we’ve heard from our parents (Does being cold make you sick? Does shaving make your hair grow thicker?) while some are more “current” questions (Could a zombie apocalypse happen? Why do we hate photos of ourselves?).  There are more than enough questions and answers in this book to make you the most knowledgable person at your next get-together.  In fact, just after I finished reading this book, I was at a family gathering where the conversation steered toward the “5 Second Rule,” which is a topic in the book.  This led to a great conversation about the book.  And the “Are Silent Farts More Deadly?” question went over very well with my children.

If you’re a serious student of science, you may not find this book that interesting or earth-shattering.  But if you’re a student of life, you’ll find this very enjoyable.  You can sit down with this book and spend the entire afternoon with it.  And then you’ll probably spend the evening watching the YouTube channel.

Monday, April 20, 2015

"At the Water's Edge" by Sara Gruen

After embarrassing themselves at a New Year’s Eve event for members of Philadelphia’s high society, Maddie and Ellis Hyde are financially cut off by his father and left completely on their own.  Ellis has already disappointed his father, a former army Colonel, by not being able to serve in WWII due to his colourblindness.  There is only one way he can think of regaining his favour - to hunt down the famous Loch Ness monster, a feat his father attempted but failed to do.

But it is 1942 and a war rages on overseas.  This won’t stop Ellis though, and along with their friend Hank, they set off for Scotland.    While Ellis and Hank spend their days hunting the monster, Maddie is left on her own back at the inn.  As she tries to adapt to a new country and a new station in life, she begins to figure out that her life isn’t what she thought it is.  As her eyes are opened to the world around her, she discovers a strength she didn’t know she had and a brand new kind of love.

At the Water’s Edge, by Sara Gruen, is a beautiful novel of friendship and love set in an uncertain time period.  Mixing in a bit of the mystical, it is a quiet novel that flows beautifully from page to page.

I’m probably one of the few people who hasn’t read Water for Elephants, which this book will inevitably be compared to given how much it was loved.  So I can’t compare the books for you but I can tell you that I did enjoy this one very much.

Hank, Ellis, and Maddie aren’t very likeable people.  They come from money and haven’t had to work a day in their lives.  At the height of WWII, Hank and Ellis are unable to enlist in the army due to Ellis’ colourblindness and Hank’s flat-footedness.  And so the three of them spend their days sleeping late and partying through the night.  But when they lose their fortune, they plot to get it back in an extreme fashion.

I must admit, I thought this part a little out there.  I love the plot of the three of them trying to find the Loch Ness monster, but making their way across the Atlantic during a war?  Well, I guess they had to get to Scotland somehow.  

I loved the female characters in this book.  At the beginning, Maddie was difficult to love but you can tell there is more to her than meets the eye.  In Scotland, Anna and Meg are strong women, representative of the millions of people facing the horrors of the Second World War.  Watching the friendship form between these women and Maddie was such a strength of this book.  

Here’s the most important thing you need to know when you begin to read the book.  Maddie, Ellis, and Hank are not great people.  They are spoiled, obnoxious, and unlikeable.  And yes, if the whole book was with them acting the way they do in the first half, it would not be an enjoyable book to read.  But it’s necessary that they start out this way.  Some characters you will dislike the whole way through, some characters will find their way into your heart.  Give the book some time to develop, I don't think you will be disappointed.  

I received a copy of this book courtesy of Random House of Canada.  The opinions expressed above are my own.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

"The Year of Taking Chances" by Lucy Diamond

In a small English village on New Year's Eve, three strangers form a bond that will change their lives forever.

Gemma’s life is centred around her two children, something that lately has been getting her down.  She wishes that her husband and children would view her as more than “just a mom.”

Caitlin is in town to pack up her recently deceased mother’s house and figure out what she should do with her life.  Fresh off of the bad break-up of a bad relationship, she feels heartbroken and lost. 

Saffron is a PR executive who is keeping a secret from everyone she knows.  She knows that when she reveals it, people around her will be devastated.  

At the New Year’s Eve party, the three women bond over cocktails and fortune cookies and vow that the coming year will be their best one yet.  But very quickly, their lives take shocking turns and each has to deal with drastic changes in love, work, and home.  Will they succumb to the pressure or will they remember their New Year’s vow and finally take some chances?

The Year of Taking Chances by Lucy Diamond is a lovely novel that many will relate to.  We’ve all been there on New Year’s Eve, taking stock and making promises.  But how many of us are actually bold enough to follow through on them, especially when the times get tough?

I have not met a Lucy Diamond novel that I didn’t like and this book continues that.  With the right combination of romance, drama, and laughs, her books are always enjoyable, smooth reads for me.  This book is no different.

At the beginning of the book I thought I would have trouble warming up to a couple of the characters but I ended up becoming attached to all three of them.  While the three stories start out running parallel to each other, they come together throughout the book and the women form a wonderful friendship.  I absolutely loved how the not just the three women, but the town and everyone around them came together to help them out.  This is such a warm story of friendship, family, and love.

I am amazed at how Lucy Diamond continually books out heart-warming, enjoyable books year after year.  Her writing is never stale, her books are always page-turners, and she is always coming up with great stories.  When it comes to chick lit it can sometimes feel like ideas and stories are being repeated but Diamond is always ahead of the game.  She is truly a gem of the genre.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

"Funny Girl" by Nick Hornby

In 1960’s England, 18-year-old Barbara wins a local beauty pageant in Blackpool.  But spending a year as a small-town beauty queen isn’t want she wants.  She’s dreaming of stardom and wanting to follow in the footsteps of the incredible Lucille Ball.  So she sets off for London where she starts out as a salesgirl and ends up a television star.  But real life never plays out the way it does on television, and along with her friends and workmates Tony, Bill, Dennis, and Clive, Sophie experiences the highs and lows of stardom and breaking television barriers.

Funny Girl, by Nick Hornby, is an humorous novel about a colourful cast of characters in the early days of television.  Fans of Lucille Ball and British humour will be wonderfully entertained.

Nick Hornby is one of those authors who I must read every book they release as soon as it is released.  He is also one of those authors who I love everything they put out.  And yet, if you ask me to tell you what his previous books are about, I’m at a loss for words.  I have no clue why this happens, and I’m not even sure what that has to do with this review, I just thought I’d share.

Anyways, as soon as I heard about Funny Girl, I knew I wanted to read it, not just for the reason I mentioned above, but because I’m one of those people who devoured episodes of I Love Lucy as a child (in reruns I feel I should mention) and will still laugh until my sides hurt every time I see an episode.  I was hoping this book would give me those same feelings and it definitely achieved this.  

I love old television comedies and I love British comedies and thus the plot and setting of this book was perfect for me.  It was so much fun to go behind the scenes of a television show I’m sure I would watch if it were real.  The only thing I found about this book that limited my enjoyment of it was I really couldn’t understand most of the cultural references due to my not being born until a few decades later and also not being English.   I think if you have that going for you and you are a lover of all things television, then you will really enjoy this book.  That’s not to say that you shouldn’t read the book if you can’t relate to the culture or time, just be warned there are a lot of unfamiliar references.

The reviews of this book are all over the map.  Some people are absolutely loving it, some people aren’t, many feel that this isn’t a typical Hornby novel.  I can’t compare it to previous Hornby novels because all I can remember about them is that I loved them.  It is definitely a long book that probably could have been shorter.  But I still recommend this book.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and it actually broke me out of a reading slump.  Despite the length I breezed through it because I was all wrapped up in it.  And I will wait for and read Hornby's next novel with much excitement because I will remember that I enjoyed this one very much.

Monday, April 13, 2015

"Fire and Air" by Erik Vlaminck, translated by Paul Vincent

Ten-year-old Elly Verkest is a first-generation Canadian born after the Second World War.  Her father, Gaston, is Belgian and her mother, Mina, is Dutch.  Growing up in Southern Ontario, in a small town filled with Dutch and Belgians, she is carving out her own unique Canadian identity.

Her father raises pigeons and often travels back to Belgium for business.  But he doesn’t return from one of his trips.  As Elly and Mina struggle to build a new life without him, their relationship becomes strained and they grow apart.  As a young adult, Elly decides to travel to Belgium in search of her father, and is shocked at what she discovers.  

Elly returns to Canada, pregnant by a man she met while in Antwerp.  When her daughter Linda is grown up, she develops a close relationship with Mina, much to the dismay of her mother.  And as this relationship develops, the family secrets spill out.

Fire and Air, by Erik Vlaminck and translated by Paul Vincent, is a novel about a family that flees their old lives for a new ones in Canada, only to find that they can never fully leave the past behind.

I picked this book up for personal reasons, I’m the child of Dutch immigrants who came to Ontario as children after the Second World War.  I was hoping to see some of my life reflected in this book and I wasn’t disappointed.  Vlaminck excellently captures the life of Dutch immigrants as well as their future generations.  

I found this story very compelling right from the start.  Early on, Vlaminck crafts the story of a family that from the outside seem like your average family, but underneath are going through troubles.  There is great strength to this and I was hooked on the family dynamic right away.  As the story went on, especially when Elly travelled to Belgium, it wasn’t as strong for me, but it definitely comes into its own again when Elly returns to Canada and as her daughter grows up.

I haven’t come across the story of the Dutch and Belgians in Southern Ontario in a novel before (let me know in the comments if you have) so I was thrilled to find this book.  But you don’t have to be from those countries to enjoy the book.  The stories of immigrants in Canada are all of our stories and it’s great to see these voices added to the mix. 

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

"Dreaming of Elsewhere: Observations on Home" by Esi Edugyan

“But where are you from, really?”

This is a question that Canadians of all walks of life are often asked.  Part of our identity as Canadians is that we all come from somewhere else, and no matter how long ago, it is a defining part of who we are.  

But for many people, this question is about more than where their family came to Canada from.  For many, it brings about a question of home and belonging.  These are the ideas that Esi Edugyan explored in her 2013 Henry Kreisel Memorial Lecture, Dreaming of Elsewhere: Observations on Home.  Born in Canada to parents from Ghana, Esi Edugyan has travelled to and lived in various countries, all the while searching for her identity and coming to understand the meaning of home.

As an author, Edugyan also reflects on Canadian literature and the notion of the “Canadian story.”  Her wildly successful novel, Half-Blood Blues, was set outside of Canada, and something she often heard was that it was not a typical Canadian novel.  But as Edugyan points out in her lecture, the beauty of our country is that it is made-up of stories from all over the world, and that our literature reflects that.  It’s not the setting that makes a book Canadian, it’s the author and their story.

This is exactly what I feel Canadian literature is all about.  When I declare something a “truly Canadian novel,” it’s not that the book is set in the country or that the characters have spent their lives within our borders.  It’s about the way the story comes across - quiet but bold, unassuming but boundary-pushing, brave and assured - the same as our people.

About The Henry Kreisel Memorial Lecture

The Henry Kreisel Memorial Lecture is the CLC’s most prestigious annual public event. The lectures are co-published in the “Kreisel Series” by the Canadian Literature Centre and the University of Alberta Press. For 2015, the CLC has invited Lynn Coady. She is a Canadian novelist, journalist and TV writer, originally from Cape Breton Island, NS, now dividing her time between Edmonton and Toronto. Her collection of short stories Hellgoing won the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize. 

For more information visit the Canadian Literature Centre