Category Archives: Books for the beach
By Melissa DeCarlo
Harper Paperbacks, 2015
“Twenty-seven minutes is, if anyone ever asks, exactly how long it takes to cram everything I own into six giant trash bags.”
—opening sentence of The Art of Crash Landing
I defy you to read that opening sentence and not keep reading.
The title of this book gives hints about the story. Before we even begin to read we know that someone’s life is spiraling out of control, and we know that someone is going to share some insights about the experience. We guess that, one way or another, the person survives. A little banged up maybe, but still in one piece.
That person is Mattie, who is 30, pregnant and couch-surfing. Her mother combined just enough love with just enough alcoholic negligence to shape her into a person who is an absolute mess, but with a capacity for daring compassion.
From that first sentence I liked Mattie. I cheered for her when she made good decisions, and I completely understood when she messed up big-time. Her character appeals to the side of us that has made mistakes, but reassures the side of us that says, “Well, I made some mistakes, but at least I didn’t screw things up that badly.”
Mattie’s mother—who died of cancer—had cut off all contact with family, so Mattie is surprised to hear that her maternal grandmother has died and left her an inheritance. The answer to her problems? Perhaps, but not without some adventures and some mystery.
“But now, my hand turning this last doorknob, the feeling is strong enough to take my breath away. Even though I already know what I’m going to find.” —Mattie in The Art of Crash Landing
What’s behind the door? I bet you want to know.
It takes skill to write a heartbreaking story with humour, and DeCarlo strikes the right balance. Some chapters unfold with an inescapable sense of impending doom, but those chapters are balanced by others that unfold with irrepressible hope. DeCarlo creates well-rounded characters who are flawed, but endearingly so. The extra touches she brings to the story—guinea pigs and farting dogs—make it all the more charming.
I received the book from Harper Paperbacks for review purposes.
I was not financially compensated for this post. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions are completely my own based on my experience.
by Rita Leganski
You will enjoy this book if you are a fan of magical realism. If you prefer cold hard facts, maybe not so much.
Given the title, The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow, I don’t think I’m giving away too much when I say the main character does not speak, or at least not with words. Voiceless, he uses other means to communicate deeply with people (alive or dead) and with nature and the universe.
Rita Leganski creates a charming character in Bonaventure Arrow. Because he doesn’t speak, Leganski can’t use traditional dialogue to convey his insights and emotions. She uses head nods, gestures, and thoughts in a way that I feared might get tedious and annoying after a while, but it never did.
The mystical New Orleans setting matches the mystical nature of the story. Leganski brings in Southern Baptist tent revivals, Roman Catholic rituals, Voodoo curses, and Hoodoo charms to add spicy twists to her narrative.
Occasionally, just very occasionally, the stilted dialogue of Bonaventure’s mother, Dancy, did not ring true to me. Dialogue is not Leganski’s strong suit as a writer. Her strength is beautiful, descriptive narrative that captures the essence of a thing.
“Dancy did not know of Gabe’s feelings, but Bonaventure could hear them and he thought they sounded like a pearl that forms in concentric layers of kindness to protect a helpless oyster from a hurtful grain of sand.”
Fortunately, since Bonaventure doesn’t speak, dialogue is not a prominent feature of the book, so the dreamy story flows.
Leganski gives us plenty to think about: life after death, different ways to perceive the unspoken, the benefits and dangers of religion, the need for forgiveness (or not), acceptance of differences, and the poison of guilt, revenge and loneliness.
The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow received unanimous approval from the members of my book club: fans of magical realism all.
by Gabrielle Zevin
Penguin Canada, 2014
My wish would be that all readers would enter this book blissfully unaware of the main plot points, so they could let the story unfold in its beautiful way.
That being my wish, I choose not to give away secrets. A.J. Fikry, owns a book store on a tourist-destination island. As he approaches middle age, he must confront and overcome some quirky character flaws, a few strained relationships and a series of unexpected events. From the twists and turns of his life, he learns some lessons, and he passes those lessons on to those who love him through comparisons to his favourite short stories. Each chapter in the book begins with A.J.’s critique of and reference to one of these stories.
Zevin’s book is intelligent, cozy, surprising and touching. My favourite line? “Someday, you may think of marrying. Pick someone who thinks you’re the only person in the room.”
Good advice, right? Enjoy that and other such wonderful nuggets when you read this book.
I am taking a summer break for a few weeks. In the meantime, you can read some past reviews of books I recommend highly:
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
You’ve never heard of Henrietta Lacks? I’m not surprised. But you should get to know her, because she has affected your life, the lives of everyone around you, and the lives of most people, in the world. Incredible, you say. Indeed. And yet, it’s true.
The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for Growth through Music by Victor L. Wooten
If you want a book that scientifically breaks down the teaching of musical scales, this is not the one. But if you want a book that takes you on a spiritual journey toward feeling Music, this is definitely the one. This book is out there—way out there. This book is past out there and looking back at it in a rear view mirror—and I loved it.
An Imperfect Offering: Humanitarian Action in the Twenty-First Century by James Orbinski
In 1994, Dr. Orbinski went to Rwanda to serve as Chef de Mission for Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders/ MSF). The relentless brutality and cruelty of Rwanda overwhelmed him. He struggled with faith, politics and his personal sense of mission. How to be human in the face of such inhumanity?
The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson
You want suspense? This book has it. You never know what’s going to happen. You want humour? This book has it. You want a fun romp through history? Boy, does this book have it.
The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant
Vaillant’s forceful writing illuminates the interwoven threads of the story: the isolation and the poverty of the Russian people, the poaching, the drive to preserve the tigers, the injustice that might have fed the tiger’s vengeance, the mysticism, and the hope for the future.
Mary Coin by Marisa Silver
This book touches on big life themes: motherhood, loss, sex, economic disparity, and the law of unintended consequences. Silver handles weighty subjects with a subtle touch, so the story doesn’t feel oppressive. She handles the light moments with strong writing, so messages don’t pass unnoticed
by Lori Lansens
Vintage Canada, 2003
A friend went into a bookstore and asked the owner to recommend a book “with teeth.” My friend left the bookstore with Rush Home Road in hand, and she liked the bite of it so much, she passed it on to me. That is how I encountered Rush Home Road eleven years after it was published.
The title refers to the road leading away from, and back to, the town of Rusholme—a fictional all-black community based on the real-life community of Buxton, Ontario. Rusholme was a southern Ontario landing spot on the Underground Railroad, the path to freedom for slaves fleeing from the United States, and Lansens’ heroine grows up in the town during the prohibition years. When Addy Shadd is on the cusp of womanhood, a tragic event, and an even more tragic misunderstanding, cause her to take the road out of town. Years later, when she is a 70-year-old living in a trailer park, a young child comes into her care. The challenges the child, Sharla, faces mirror those Addy faced as a child. In guiding Sharla to a better life, Addy unearths her own buried memories and traumas and clears the way for a return to Rush Home Road.
Two stories intertwine here: a short one involving Sharla and the reasons for her abandonment, and a seven-decade long one detailing Addy’s eventful life. To tell the interconnecting stories, Lansens crisscrosses present day and memory, but she does so seamlessly; flashbacks don’t stand out as flashbacks. Lansens writes convincingly from the child-like view of Sharla and from the age-worn view of Addy. The result is a book that is both plot-driven and character-driven.
This story is surprisingly uplifting, given that the two main characters are a poor black woman and a mixed-race trailer park child, both abandoned by their mothers. Lansens infuses the characters and the stories with such hope and humanity that the tale never feels too daunting. There are irretrievable losses and failings left unforgiven, but there are also friendships, new loves and salves applied to wounds.
The bookstore owner was right. This story has teeth, and I liked it.
by Kate Manning
I read this book immediately after I read The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout. What a contrast. Strout’s characters were unhappy and unlikable comfortably well-off people. Kate Manning’s characters were positive and likable impoverished people. I struggled through The Burgess Boys. I delighted in every page of My Notorious Life.
Manning’s inspiration for My Notorious Life was a real-life female physician who became known as “The Wickedest Woman in New York.” In Manning’s version, the heroine is Annie (Axie) Muldoon. She is born into 1860s New York City as the child of desperately poor Irish immigrants. When her father dies and her mother is maimed in an accident, Axie, her sister, Dutchie, and her baby brother, Joe, end up on an orphan train as part of the Western Emigration Program.
The trajectory of her life leads her to mistrust men, to confront the “complexities” of women’s rights, especially reproductive rights, and to accumulate wealth and controversy in equal measure. Axie Muldoon becomes Madame DeBeausacq, a woman who compassionately does what she believes is right even when it’s illegal and risky.
This puts her on a collision course with Anthony Comstock, founder of the Society for the Suppression of Vice. He, too, does what he believes is right even when it’s illegal and risky.
The result is a story that resonates with the solar plexus. Manning explores family dynamics, love, feminism, reproduction, money, class separation, ethical dilemmas and marriage. Her story is harrowing and fun, heartbreaking and uplifting.