My Favourite Reads of 2013

 

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice. And to make an end is to make a beginning.”

~ T.S. Eliot, (from: Little Gidding)

While I am definitely thinking about all of the great reading ahead in 2014, I very much wanted to share with you my favourite reads from 2013. Lists are always subjective…I recognize this, but I read some truly wonderful books last year and I wanted to record these stand-outs. Maybe this list will help you discover some new reads, or prompt some interesting conversations; I hope it will do both!

I have broken out my list into four categories (but the books are not listed in any particular order):

  • Literary Fiction Published in 2013;
  • Contemporary Literature.;
  • Classic Literature; and
  • Nonfiction.

I. Literary Fiction Published in 2013:

1. Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, by Therese Anne Fowler. This is a wonderful novel of historical fiction. It is well-researched and Fowler has beautifully imagined (and, maybe, at moments recreated certain aspects of) the life of Zelda Fitzgerald, beyond just the wife of the famous/infamous F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fowler show Zelda forging her own identity while fighting her own personal demons and Scott’s, too? With brilliant insight and imagination, Therese Anne Fowler brings us Zelda’s irresistible story as she herself might have told it.

2. Kicking the Sky, by Anthony De Sa. I read this book in October, 2013, and shared my thoughts at that time. Three months later, I still find myself thinking about this story and wowed by De Sa’s talent.

3. The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner. This was my first time reading Kushner, and she blew my mind. I loved everything about this novel – it was tough, edgy and sensitive.

4. The Painted Girls, by Cathy Marie Buchanan.  This novel ticked all the boxes for me: ballet, belle époque Paris, Degas, Zola, La Figaro.  While fictional, I loved the way Buchanan wove the history of the real events throughout this story. I read the book quickly – two very late-night reading sessions that kept me up way, waaaay past bedtime. The subsequent daytime sleepiness was well worth it though.

5. The Crooked Maid, by Dan Vyleta. The Crooked Maid is many things – historical fiction, mystery, literary fiction, homage. Vyleta’s doing a lot with this novel, which could be a worry – but it’s very good, and Vyleta can really write. His ability with description is pretty stellar.

6. The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert. The only word that keeps rolling around in my brain, concerning Gilbert’s new novel, is: LUSH – this book is so lush and enveloping. It was pretty delightful from start to finish. And if you know me, you know I don’t really use the word ‘delightful’! This novel may have been my most surprising read this year.

II. Contemporary Literature:

1. Indian Horse (2012), by Richard Wagamese. I managed a 5 word review, after I read this novel in February, 2013: “Stunning. Beautiful. Heartbreaking. Required reading.” Wagamese’s book affected me very deeply. For all its heartbreak, it was also very much a hopeful story. This is a book that can, and should, be read by everyone.

2. The Wreckage (2005), by Michael Crummey. My love for Michael Crummey’s writing runs fairly deep – I think he is brilliant. He wowed me again with The Wreckage. Reading this novel made me want to spend some time in Crummey’s brain…or, at the very least, take a writing class with him.

3. Sweetness in the Belly (2005), by Camilla Gibb. I read this book for the third time in 2013, and man, it’s great!  Gibb is a fantastic storyteller and through her prose I could truly see, hear, smell and touch the places she created in this book – Lilly’s life in Harare, and her life in London were both so vivid.

4. A Complicated Kindness,(2004) by Miriam Toews.  Another third reading. (2013 was unusual in that regard, I don’t generally re-read much at all.) I LOVE THIS NOVEL SO HARD!  I think this books gets better with each reading. The way Toews captures the voice of 16-year-old Nomi is incredible. Sure she’s wise and precocious, but she’s also still a kid and Toews gets her voice so right.

5. The Round House, (2012) by Louise Erdrich. What a great novel! It’s evocative and hard but using a 13-year-old boy as the protagonist adds a layer of nuance that would be missing in an older main character (I think – given the arc of Joe’s story.) I really loved Erdrich’s perspective on family, love and justice. The supporting characters are all very interesting and well developed, and served to make this a very tightly woven novel.

6. Arcadia (2011), by Lauren Groff. I loved Arcadia a lot. i viscerally responded to the settings and people Groff created here, and i am kinda floored by Groff’s talent. I was totally caught up in Bit’s life. I loved the timeline and following him along life’s path.

7. The Snow Child (2012), by Eowyn Ivey. What a fantastic debut novel! It’s a magical and sometimes heartbreaking story, perfectly set for a wonderful winter read.

8. The Savage Detectives (1998), by Roberto Bolaño.

bolañover

bow-lah-nyoh-verr;  noun

1. weird physical and emotional effects caused by reading the works of Roberto Bolaño. symptoms may include: confusion; anger; awe; dry eyes; headache; idolatry; exhaustion; the strong desire for alcohol, drugs or both; feelings of filthiness and the need to shower to remove the grit; wonder; sadness; curiosity; the unexplained urge to pimp out a 1970s impala. symptoms may ease with time or they may worsen.

2. a thing that has survived from the past.

III. Classic Literature:

1. Two Solitudes (1945), by Hugh MacLennan. What a dense, wonderful important novel. This was a re-read for me, but I had lost so many details over the years it was like a new experience. Following the strands of story arcs concerning ‘two solitudes’, through this novel was amazing. MacLennan wrote about so many important issues and brought heart and humanity to the telling. Certainly a canadian classic, and a book that should continue to resonate for generations to come.

2. Persuasion (1818), by Jane Austen. Late in the book there is this quote:

“Minutiae which, even with every advantage of taste and delicacy which good Mrs. Musgrove could not give, could be properly interesting only to the principals.”

And when I read that line it made me think of the details in Austen’s writing and how, in fact, the minutiae present with her manner of storytelling sucks me right in every time. But…with Persuasion I feel this is very much a novel of Anne’s restraint and resolve, as much as it is a tale of different persuasions. So given Anne’s nature, though we aren’t privy to her inner workings in great detail, I was seeing everything through her eyes and completely immersed in her world.

3. The Grapes of Wrath (1939), by John Steinbeck. Oh for the love of humanity — is there any family as hard done by as the Joads??? The Joads’ humanity and hope, in the face of utter hopelessness, is incredible. And the way Steinbeck conveyed this balance throughout the novel is brilliant. The man was a genius. But i don’t really know what I could possibly say here that hasn’t been said earlier, and better, by others? Read it! Do it!

4. To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), by Harper Lee. I made it all the way to page 317 without crying…even though I felt like I could a couple of times earlier on. But page 317 did me in, the bastard! Heh. (I am not really a person who cries while reading – though Grapes of Wrath last week (see above) and this book tonight are turning me into a liarface on this front.) Now, I am all teary and soppy, and I ugly-cried and I got the hiccups and I have to try and write something here that conveys how brilliant this book is to me. So how about this: Harper Lee is so freaking amazing she will make you ugly-cry!  Yeah? Cool!

5. Twelfth Night (1602), by William Shakespeare. A re-read (again with the re-reads!!) after many years, and still as great as I remember it to be. Shakespeare can be lots of fun.

IV. Nonfiction:

1. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012), by Susan Cain. I am an introvert. But I am not shy. So I have been trying to explain the difference to people for years. Instead, I should just carry around copies of Cain’s great, great book. Being an introvert and having a good and thoughtful understanding of what this means, I still learned a lot from Quiet. Cain’s research seems very well done (and so interesting), and her style is very engaging. I think this is one of those books that everyone should read as it will likely help open some eyes and minds, and allow people to better understand and respect one another.

2. The Truth About Luck (2013), by Iain Reid. Sometimes you read a book and it becomes something you connect with so personally and deeply that it becomes nearly impossible to detach from it to assess or review it constructively. That happened with this amazing book by Iain Reid. But, I  thought about it for quite a while, and i think – my personal attachment aside – the strength of Reid’s writing, the flow of the story, and his ability to make us care about what he and his grandma are up to make this book totally worth its 5-star rating. (I wrote about the book in more detail, in March, 2013.)

3. Belonging: Home Away From Home (2003), by Isabel Huggan. This book is wonderful – and was my #1 favourite read for 2013! The majority of the book is a memoir of place – the search for home. Not just the physical: the location and the structure, but also the feeling. Feeling one is home is a big deal. At least it is to me, anyway. And it’s something I have been hoping to find my whole life.  Huggan gives voice to this search, this sensation, and does it so beautifully and naturally. There’s a lot of excavation of memory that goes on in the telling, and it felt very much like I was just listening to Huggan in conversation. Also contained in the story are small snippets of Huggan’s writing life, something I really appreciated.

4. The Arctic Grail (1988), by Pierre Berton. What a great book!!! Pierre Berton is an excellent storyteller and, it would seem, he is also an impeccable researcher. But that’s not really a surprise!! Shamefully, this is the first time I have read a Berton book. OOPS!! He definitely came up during my time in elementary and secondary school, but we were never actually given any of his books to read/study. Weird, right?? I was so amazed by the overwhelming lack of preparedness with which the majority of the expeditions undertook their quests. The British expeditions were stubbornly and fatally wrong-headed in not learning from their inuit contacts, and judging the Inuit, while useful to them, ‘savages’ and ‘unintelligent’.

5. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997), by David Foster Wallace.  Each essay in this collection has its own strength (and each is fairly brilliant), but overwhelmingly evident, when taken as a whole, is DFW’s ability to assess and read people, and analyze a situation or instance in the context of a bigger picture. It’s uncanny, really.

6. My Ideal Bookshelf (2013), by Jane Mount & Thessaly La Force. Or, as I like to call it, porn for book lovers! This is just a beautiful book to look at, and it also gives great satisfaction on the ‘snooping the bookshelves’ front.

7. Bottomfeeder (2007), by Taras Grescoe.  LOVE THIS BOOK!! Seriously; it’s fantastic. It should be required reading for everyone. Grescoe has a wonderful ability with delivering the facts and science in a very engaging and approachable way. The structure of the book is fantastic: each chapter is like a little case study. A species is examined – the supply, the demand, the problems and the science – and explained. Grescoe travelled the world while researching this book and is clearly very passionate about the seafood industry, and about the choices he makes for his diet.

***************

So, there you have it – all of the absolute stand out books I had the pleasure of reading in 2013.  Altogether, I read 121 books last year. This was definitely not usual. Generally, I average somewhere between 60 and 70 books per year. I am not really clear on what happened in 2013 to cause my pace to double, but it was quite the adventure and I will look back fondly on ‘that one crazy reading year’.

A few stats:

  • Total books read: 121
  • Total pages read: 41,839
  • 71 female writers
  • 49 male writers
  • And 1 collection featuring male and female writers
  • 12 works in translation

You can view my full reading list on Goodreads.

Thank you for visiting Literal Life, and continuing to be interested in the books I am reading and talking about.

As always – please feel free to share your favourite reads with me – I would love to hear about them

Happy reading!

Nonfiction for Fall

This morning, I had a wonderful opportunity to hear about four fantastic new works of nonfiction. I am so excited for each of these books, and their wonderful authors, that I couldn’t wait to share these recommendations with you!

Many thanks to Ben, of Ben McNally Books, for hosting another successful Authors’ Brunch. Thanks, also, to the Globe and Mail (and books editor Jared Bland) who is an an event sponsor.

Now…on to the BOOKS!

1) First to speak this morning was Charlie Wilkins, and what an interesting man! His new book is called Little Ship of Fools.

LittleShipCover.inddFrom January through March of 2011, a crew of 16 rowers made their way from Morocco to Barbados. The journey was scheduled to take 33 days. It took 53 days. They ran out of food on day 43. No humans were cannibalized during this adventure.  But, desperate for food, Wilkins did consume a vacuum packed piece of chicken, whose packaging had torn, and upon which was clearly written: “If package is ripped or torn, do not consume.”  But hunger can do funny things to people. The issue, to Wilkins, wasn’t ‘What if this chicken is bad?”, but, rather, “What if this chicken is GOOD?” He had to try. He was fine. For two hours.

Since taking on this project, Wilkins noted that so many people have two big questions for him: 1) Why did you do this? and 2) Why would you do this at your age? (Wilkins was 61 at the time of the rowing.)  The short answer: “I felt like it.”  Fair enough.  In chatting with Charlie after the event, I noted that whatever this “thing” is…this thing that makes people want to row across oceans, climb Mount Everest, trek to the South Pole…I just don’t have that “thing” in my DNA. But I have an absolute respect and fascination with people who do. Along with this latest adventure, Wilkins has also walked from Thunder Bay to New York City. He has travelled with the circus, and soaked up the life of the famous Wallenda family. He has worked as a gravedigger. (Wilkins has written books about each of these times in his life.)

Wilkins is a really lovely man! He is curious and interested in our world and often contemplates the importance of our connection to this place we call home. Along with that thinking, comes further wondering: what happens when we become disconnected, fracturing ourselves from the planet? When everything we think about ourselves is stripped away, what happens to us? These are some weighty and important questions. But Wilkins is not a sombre or morose man. Rather, his “compulsion to go”, his inquisitiveness and examining nature have helped him become a wonderful storyteller and excellent human being. I hope you will check out his book!

2) Next at the podium was GQ magazine contributor and eight-time National Magazine Award nominee, Mike Paterniti. His newest book, The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese has been getting all sorts of positive attention since its summer release, and it’s a book I have been very keen to acquire.

While working on his MFA in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Paterniti worked at a well-known deli, Zingerman’s. While Paterniti felt his MFA in fiction was “qualifying him for nothing”, he could make a sandwich. While working at the delicatessen, he was asked for input on the shop’s newsletter. (See, MFA’s can be useful!) Zingerman’s owner was quite particular in choosing excellent food and loved sourcing high quality artisanal products. One item, featured in the newsletter, caught Paterniti’s eye – a small mention of a type of cheese from Guzmán, Spain, that had been made in a cave by the same family for hundreds of years. For nine years, Paterniti carried this newsletter clipping with him until, finally, he ended up in Spain for a work assignment. With one day off, he decided to visit Guzmán, to try and learn more about the cheese and the man behind the cheese, Ambrosio Molinos de las Heras.

During the 8-hours Paterniti spent with Ambrosio, they sat in the “telling room” – a space within the family cave where everyone would “gather to drink and eat, share stories and histories and dreams.”   Paterniti heard the most incredible tale during his visit, and became wholly intrigued with Ambrosio, the cheese and this funny little village which very much resembles a “Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel – full of magical realism.” (They have a resident, named ‘Emmanuel,’ who is ‘the man that flew that one time’.)

Paterniti says this book is about keeping stories alive and reminding ourselves that we are making and writing our own stories every day.

3)  The inimitable Charlotte Gray was our next author. Her new book will, with hope, attract fiction readers who love a good crime tale. Gray joked about her genre-jumping from serious biographies to CRIME WRITER (!!), with her newest book, The Massey Murder. Gray loves bringing Canada’s “rich and detailed history to life” and is on a “self-appointed mission to share the love of Canadian history.”

 

9781443409254Gray was in a bookstore when she noticed all of the real estate taken up by crime fiction. “A-HA!”, she thought. And decided, in that moment, her next book would be a work that would bring the story of a crime in Canada’s past to life for readers. She began asking around her friends (judges and lawyers) for interesting crime cases she could research – “the more sex and blood, the better!’ – and was amused to discover that Canada, known for being a polite and dignified country, actually has “quite a lot of sleaze” in its past. Gray “had such fun writing this book” and in the end, she really didn’t know who was the victim in this story. Colour me intrigued!

The Massey murder took place at a crucial moment in Canada’s history and gave Gray the chance to explore three big ideas:

* In 1915, Canada had just sent its second contingency of men to WWI and families were beginning to receive notices about their husbands and sons being killed in action.
* Toronto was in a state of turmoil. During the ten years leading up to this crime, the population had doubled and extraordinary social dislocations were taking place. Many people coming into the city were not all from the U.K, and not all were protestant. Immigrant communities were growing and the pains being experienced were impacting the city.
* The Massey murder occurs during a backdrop of the changing role of women in Canadian society. At this time, “a woman either worked as a servant or had a servant.”

4) Our final author for the morning was Adam Leith Gollner. His new book is called: The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief and Magic Behind Living Forever9780307368188_0.

Do you ever have dreams that sit with you for days and days, preoccupying your thoughts? Gollner had such a dream, about a fountain. While thinking and thinking about this dream…he realized it was the fountain of youth, and with this understanding, he had discovered his next book’s topic – immortality. He then spent five years thinking “about this thing that doesn’t really exist, that has no end. Or does it?”

Divided into three sections, belief, science and magic – Gollner spent time with spiritual leaders, people of faith, scientists…and magician David Copperfield. Oh, yes he did. Copperfield, apparently, discovered ‘magic water’ on the island of his vacation home. Dead bugs dipped in this water would spring to life and fly away. Browned, dead leaves would return to green life when put in this water. This is, clearly, some very special water. Gollner was eventually given permission to visit Copperfield on his island. Though Gollner would not be allowed to see the ‘magic water’, Copperfield agreed to talk to him “with great verbal aplomb”, about the water. So…magic water, you guys!!

**********

I hope you are all very intrigued by each of these books!!  This group of authors was truly fabulous and while their books are very different, it was wonderful to hear about overlapping themes and ideas.  Many people avoid reading nonfiction because they feel as though the genre might be dull or the narrative flow not captivating enough. With these four books, I think lovers of fiction and nonfiction alike will be thrilled.

Please do seek out these books, whether at your local library or independent bookseller. Each of these authors are great – engaging, smart, interesting and positive. They are helping bring our histories and social relationships to life and giving voice to people, times, places and ideas we may not ever otherwise know about.

My Most Anticipated Reads For Spring & Summer (And Brief Hiatus Announcement)

Photo: Aude Van Ryn

Photo: Aude Van Ryn

First, a quick explanation about my planned hiatus: Some health issues will have me in hospital and out of commission for a time. So, I won’t be able to share any reviews or news for a little while. In my absence, I hope you will tell me all about the books you are reading and enjoying. I always love to hear great recommendations from fellow book lovers and given I will have some extensive downtime – your suggestions will be particularly welcomed right now.

So — please leave a comment and share some reading suggestions with me or tell me about the books you are most anticipating this spring and summer!! (I truly would love to hear from you.)

Before taking my break, I thought I would share with you some titles I am really looking forward to this spring and summer. (One resource I love and look forward to each year is The Millions: Most Anticipated. This is a giant list of books and there are always a large number of titles that hold appeal for me.)

Anyway…onto my hotly anticipated books:

* And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini – Hosseini’s wonderful novel The Kite Runner was an amazing and emotional reading experience for me several summers ago.

* Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – with each of her novels, I become more and more intrigued with this writer. This could be a huge book for her.

* Transatlantic by Colum McCann – McCann is another writer I respect and I am quite curious about this new one.

* Night Film by Marisha Pessl – only her second novel, it’s been delayed a couple of times and is being much-hyped. I didn’t love her first book, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, though I did like it and was impressed by her potential.

* The Autistic Brain by Temple Grandin – Grandin is a bit of a hero in this house so I am keen to read her new book which was released today!

* Paris by Edward Rutherfurd – Rutherfurd is always great for an immersive and escapist reading experience. This 832 page tome should be a wonderful summer read!

* Gioconda from Lucille Turner – a debut that is getting me quite excited: a) I love literary fiction debuts; b) historical fiction!!

* The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion – okay, the word ‘screwball’ in the description is appealing. And, if I am being shallow – i love the cover design. So yes! Sometimes I judge a book by its cover.

New Canadian Books Making Me Drooly:

* In Calamity’s Wake by Natalee Caple – this is silly but the word ‘calamity’ has always been one of my favourites and I have long been taken with the legend of Calamity Jane. So…this book really is a must read for me.

* The Hungry Ghosts by Shyam Selvadurai – this book sounds amazing!

* Bone & Bread by Saleema Nawaz – sounds fascinating and possibly has the potential to be a novel that can crossover to mature YA readers.

* The Family Took Shape by Shashi Bhat – a debut novel that has really captured my attention! (In case you didn’t note earlier in the post: I am such a huge fan of literary debuts. It’s like a genre unto itself for me!)

* Caught by Lisa Moore – Moore is such a compelling storyteller. Any novel she writes is going to be worth reading!

* Maxine by debut novelist Claire Wilkshire – As we have already established…I love a debut novel. A debut novel from Newfoundland-based writer makes me very excited!

* Miracles of Ordinary Men by Amanda Leduc – I have heard such great things about this book!

* Studio Saint-Ex by Ania Szado – I actually received an advanced copy of the novel from Penguin Canada (thank you!!) and devoured it. Szado’s well researched imaginings are immersive and transportive. I really loved this book and have been working on a proper review for the novel.

* River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay – I think this is going to be a great read. Kay is a lovely man and cares deeply about the research he puts into each of his historical fiction novels.

If you are looking for more reading suggestions, Publishers Weekly has also posted a fairly comprehensive list of books – there’s sure to be something for every reader here.

So – tell me what you are most looking forward to reading over the next couple of months?? I really would love to hear about all the great reading you have planned.

 

 

The Truth About Luck – Iain Reid

I have been eager to get a copy of Iain Reid’s new book so when I received a review edition from House of Anansi – a surprise, and a great one at that – I was ecstatic and did not wait to jump into the story. Reid’s previous book, One Bird’s Choice was one of my favourite reads of 2010 and my expectations were sky-high for The Truth About Luck. It rocks! Hard!

From the book’s description:

9781770892415_1024x1024 In The Truth about Luck, Iain Reid, author of the highly popular coming-of-age memoir One Bird’s Choice, accompanies his grandmother on a five-day vacation — which turns out to be a “staycation” at his basement apartment in Kingston. While the twenty-eight-year-old writer is at the beginning of his adult life, his ninety-two-year-old grandmother is nearing the end of hers. Between escorting his grandma to local attractions and restaurants, the two exchange memories and she begins to reveal details of her inspiring life story.
Told with subtlety, humour, and heart, this delightful comic memoir reflects on family connections; how we experience adversity, the passage of time, and aging; and most importantly what it truly means to feel lucky.

 

Sometimes you read a book and it is something you connect with so personally and deeply it can become nearly impossible to detach from it to assess or review in a constructive way. That happened with this amazing book. But, I have been thinking about it for a few days now and I feel – my personal attachment wrestled off to the side – the strength of Reid’s writing – the flow of the story and his ability to make us curious and really care about what he and his grandma are up to – make this book totally worth its 5-star rating.

Web_Reid_slideshow_01Along with some eerie similarities between Reid and I (hello worry, anxiety and writerly lifestyle you crazy trifecta, you), our grandmothers are very similar women. Both were born in the U.K. (his in Scotland, mine in England (in 1917) but with her family she moved to Scotland very early on in her life). Both women lived through two World Wars and the depression and both ladies worked hard for most of their lives. As well, they are very smart and funny people. So, in reading Reid’s book, it was like having my grandma here with me again. (Sadly, grandma died in the summer of 2009, at the age of 92.) There were moments in the book that had me laughing so hard, tears streamed down my face and my stomach hurt. In one particularly hilarious scene, Reid’s grandmother somehow becomes entangled in her seatbelt. This quickly brought to mind an outing my grandma and I had together many years ago. It was a very hot summer day and we were going out for lunch. My car at that time was nicknamed ‘Oven Car’ – it was a notoriously bad place to be on hot, unrelentingly sunny days. I helped grandma into the car and as I got settled into my own seat, she suddenly lurched forward, grabbing the dashboard while shouting “My Ass is on fire!” But the dashboard was really hot too. “My hands are on fire!”, she then yelled. “How do you live like this?”, she wondered out loud while simultaneously trying to get undone from the seatbelt in some failed attempt at escape and fumbling with the interior controls, searching for the non-existent air-conditioning. It was so hot. But it was so hilarious and quickly became a funny story we liked to re-tell.

There were other, quieter moments, in The Truth About Luck that were beautiful and heartfelt. I am glad Reid – encouraged by his brother Jimmy – went with the idea of giving his grandmother time together as a birthday gift. They spent five days at Reid’s home in Kingston, Ontario talking, eating, seeing some local sites and learning things about one another they hadn’t previously known.

I have, unintentionally, been on this trend lately of reading books with older people featuring as main characters – here, Reid’s grandma is 92; last week I read Terry Fallis’ newest novel, Up and Down. It features a 71-year-old protagonist. The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson, which I read a few months ago, was a completely endearing hoot. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce and Helen Simonson‘s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand also feature characters of retirement age. Given our demographic trend towards an aging population, perhaps this is the new thing in publishing? If it is — I am a big fan. I can think of quite a few more books I have read and enjoyed in recent years that feature mature characters with interesting stories — I bet you can come ups with some great books too, if you think about it for a moment. As individuals, we have a lot to learn. Within developed societies, we take a lot for granted. Hearing about the experiences, challenges and triumphs of older generations should smarten us up and help us realize that older does not mean already dead. Older does not mean no longer worth our time. On the contrary, our respect, gratitude and time should be used to honour and value those who have come before us.

Helen Edna

Helen Edna

I remember talking with my own grandma about the idea that when people get old they often get forgotten. She used to tell me how lucky she felt to have her family around her and I would feel really sad thinking about those who either had no one or had people who choose to stay away. My grandmother always had more energy and more of a social life than I ever seem(ed) to muster and I really hope to live as excellent a life as she did. So, I thank Reid for his wonderful book but also for the fact that through his book I was able to spend some precious, dedicated time remembering my own grandmother and the shenanigans we got up to together. That is a great gift to a reader indeed!

This is a much more personal review than I usually write. But I suspect this is happening to a lot of people reading The Truth About Luck. I feel that most people will find it a challenge to read this book in a detached manner. Reid’s style invites you in to a comfortable, relatable story that opens you up for reminiscence. Oh, and in a totally weird yet even more personal aside:  I really need to get in touch with Reid’s mum to find out about her use of plain yogourt to help her diabetic cat. My wonderful dog recently developed insulin-dependent diabetes and he’s had a very rough go these past few months. He’s a bit more stable now, thanks goodness, and I am researching ways to help him further. Reading that yogourt could be some sort of miracle supplement to help my dog’s coat and general health, well — I need to know more!

Edited to add: Reid recently spoke with the 49th Shelf about The Truth About Luck. It’s a great article!

Stray Love, by Kyo Maclear

Where do we belong in this world? If we aren’t even certain about our own origins, how can we possibly make our way in this world without a foundation of support and love? Especially “How?” if the person trying to figure this out is an eleven-year-old boy?

In beautiful, poetic prose Kyo Maclear takes on these questions in Stray Love, her second novel. For her young protagonist, Maclear tries to help make sense of a world that is determined to judge, label and put everyone in a tidy, little box. Marcel is neither black nor white. He is someone who is seemingly without parents and just wants to fit in. Finding the answers to these important questions is a lifelong search for him.

From the book’s description:

Born of an adulterous affair in London, England, Marcel is ethnically ambiguous, growing up in the racially charged 1960s with a white surrogate father named Oliver. Abandoned as an infant, Marcel is haunted by vague memories of his bohemian mother, and is desperate to know who his real parents are.

When Oliver is promoted to foreign correspondent, he leaves Marcel in the care of his ill-equipped friends, including the beautiful Pippa. The world is being swept by a wave of liberation—coups, revolutions and the end of colonialism. While Oliver rushes toward the action, Marcel is set adrift in swinging London, a city of magic—and a city where he can never quite fit in. Just when it seems they will never be reunited, Marcel is sent to join Oliver in Vietnam. But by the summer of 1963, the war is escalating, and Oliver is finally overwhelmed by his doomed love for Pippa. When Marcel eventually uncovers the shattering truth about his mother, his entire world is rearranged.

Now, as his fiftieth birthday approaches, Marcel is asked to take care of his friend’s eleven-year-old daughter, Iris. Prodded by her sharp-eyed company, he reflects on his own bittersweet childhood and the experiences that have shaped his present.

Using non-linear prose that moves from Marcel’s present to his tumultuous past, we are treated to a heartfelt examination of identity. The novel is populated by characters of mixed heritage who seem lost in their lives and in their loves. As a boy, Marcel is older than his years. Though loved by a makeshift collection of emotionally damaged caregivers, he is not truly anyone’s first priority. But Marcel is able to compartmentalize, has a talent for drawing and a devoted friend in Kiyomi so is able to escape from his life. At least for brief moments of time.

“Kiyomi had taught me the word. Moggy, she said, was a slang word for “cat”, but it was also a name for mongrels. “I am a moggy”, she said, “because dad is Scottish and mum is Japanese.” According to Kiyomi, moggies were half-ghost. Moggies cannot walk down the street or into a room or watch a movie without looking for themselves. When will I appear? was the question on the lips of most moggies.

I finished this read several weeks ago now and it is still sitting with me. I have delayed posting my review only because I am feeling a huge responsibility to do justice to both the novel and Maclear. But today, I just want to get something published here, to share my love of this wonderful book.

Each year I find a very small number of spectacular works of fiction that, for whatever reasons, seem to fly under the radar. I think Stray Love is such a book. So, do yourself a big favour and get your hands on a copy of this novel. (Even better, visit a local independent bookstore to purchase a copy! The trade paperback edition of Stray Love became available as of March 11th.) As it has with me, I think you will find the beauty and heart in Maclear’s novel. Marcel will take up space in your heart and, I hope, you will discover a new favourite author.