Monthly Archives: July 2013

Anna and the French Kiss

annaThis is another romance, kind of, but also another young-adult novel. Emma read this one earlier this year and really loved it, but I only got around to picking it up now. It’s a well-written and enjoyable romance about two high-school seniors who meet at a boarding school for American kids in Paris. Anna is a film buff, a little bit shy and not really excited about being in Paris (it was her dad’s decision to send her — and by the way the descriptions of her bestselling-author dad who got rich by writing novels about people who fall in love and then get deadly illnesses are hilarious for any reader who recognizes the target of the parody). Etienne St. Clair has a French father, an American mother and has grown up in London, and of course Anna falls for him just as almost every girl does. The story unfolds along with the school year as Anna’s friendship with Etienne develops … and almost blossoms into romance. Romance is stalled by the fact that Etienne still has a girlfriend. But the really interesting thing here is not the fairly predictable storyline but the character development and great use of young-American-in-Paris as a setting for a sweet tale of young love.

Again a caution to parents of younger teens reading this novel: the boarding school Anna and her friends attend is co-ed, extremely poorly supervised, and in a city where high school seniors are legally able to drink, so there are some “mature” hijinks, although Etienne and Anna’s relationship is pretty much PG-rated, and Anna’s one attempt at a drunken party ends badly and leaves her a little wiser. So it’s not exactly that the novel promotes teenage sex and drinking, but certainly acknowledges they exist (the characters are, after all, all 17 or 18 years old, but the writing is likely to appeal to kids more the age of my daughter, 13). I’m a big fan of reading what your kids are reading and discussing it with them, and if you do that in this case, you’ll get to enjoy a fun, sweet romance with Paris as a backdrop (Emma wishes she’d read the novel before we went to Paris as there are many landmarks she’d like to have visited because of their use in the book. Oh dear, guess we’ll just have to go back to Paris sometime …)

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A Place at the Table, by Susan Rebecca White

placeatthetableHaving read both of Susan Rebecca White’s earlier novels (Bound South and A Soft Place to Land) and enjoyed them, I really feel she’s written her best work so far with A Place at the Table. It tells the stories of Bobby, a preacher’s kid from the South who is rejected by his family when they discover he’s gay, and Amelia, a suburban housewife whose husband leaves her when their daughters leave home. Bobby and Amelia come from very different lives, but their paths cross in New York City, and both their lives intersect with the life of Alice, an African-American chef who’s made Southern cooking trendy in New York.

The different paths the characters travel to get to the point where they intersect are vividly described — I found Bobby’s the most compelling story, perhaps because we follow him from childhood through to adulthood and see his struggles all along the way. As you probably know if you read a lot of my reviews, I’m particularly drawn to books that do a good job of integrating characters’ religious faith into believable contemporary stories, and A Place at the Table does a superb job of this. While I don’t know much about Southern culture (except through novels) I know a lot about evangelical culture, and the scenes of Bobby growing up in that world are so entirely believable and real, it’s easy to see both why he has to leave home when his parents catch him making out with another boy, and why he always feels disconnected and misses the world he grew up in. A later scene where the adult Bobby, longing for the sense of God’s presence he knew as a child, goes into a Catholic church and is refused communion, is one of the most heart-rending things I’ve ever read.

Bobby finds a different kind of communion, as do Amelia and Alice, in sharing meals around a common table. Bobby becomes a chef at the restaurant where Alice used to work and explores love, loss, friendship and spirituality through cooking, which not only makes for a good story but made me pretty hungry while reading it (I’m happy to report that the recipe for Bobby’s Meemaw’s pound cake is included at the back of the book).

It takes awhile for the story to work back around to the prologue, which tells the story of Alice and her brother growing up in the racially divided 1920s South, but that story lurks in the background of the other stories, and the alert reader will notice where it begins to move to the forefront again. In one sense this novel reminded me of Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed which I enjoyed so much recently — it tells about two very close siblings separated under tragic circumstances, but then goes on to tell the stories of several other loosely connected people before returning us to the two siblings. White, like Hosseini, avoids the sentimental happy ending while still offering hope — not just for the original divided family but for the larger families that people have forged for themselves through love and connection. By the end of this novel communion truly has been held, in many different forms, and the novel is a testament to the ways we create community even in the midst of tragedy.


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His Unexpected Family, by Patricia Johns

unexpectedfamilyEvery time I review a romance novel, I always have to start with the disclaimer that I don’t normally read romance novels, because I feel like I’m not well-equipped to review a genre if it’s not my usual type of book. However, I’ll make an exception if the author is someone I know, so long as you (if you’re a romance reader) understand that I’m no expert on the conventions of the genre.

I’ve reviewed several books in the past by my friend Patty Froese Ntihemuka — she and I were, for a time, both writing Biblical fiction for the same Christian publisher. But her heart was always in romance and her ambition was always to get a contract with Harlequin’s Love Inspired line of Christian romances. Now, writing under the pen name Patricia Johns, she has just released her first Love Inspired title, His Unexpected Family (I hope Harlequin’s Secret Service is not going to come after me for revealing her real identity, but we’ve been long-distance writer-friends for so long I just had to brag about how proud I am of her for keeping her eyes on the goal with such determination and finally getting there!)

His Unexpected Family tells the story of kindergarten teacher Emily, who becomes guardian of her cousin’s newborn baby when the cousin is killed in a car accident, and Greg, the police chief who brings her the baby and, of course, falls for her. The complication here is that Greg has determined never to have kids of his own because of the pain he experienced when his own police-officer dad died in the line of duty, so a girl, however charming, who comes with a ready-made family makes him pretty cautious. Of course obstacles will be overcome — with a romance novel, the question is never whether but when  the couple will get together. Greg and Emily are likable characters, but my greatest interest in reading this story was solving the mystery that surrounded baby Cora — why had Emily’s cousin had a baby and not told anyone in the family, why did she choose Emily as the guardian, and where was she going the night she was killed? These little hints of intrigue bring something special to a sweet, family centred-romance.


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Paper Towns, by John Green

papertownsThis was the last John Green novel I hadn’t yet read, and although both my kids would rate it fourth out of his four books (they love all four, but love this one least, apparently, though still better than most other books),  I found it kind of haunting and lovely. The narrator, Quentin, is awestruck by the beautiful, exciting Margo. When she finally notices him, it’s for one night of madcap hijinks before she suddenly disappears just a few months before high-school graduation. Quentin believes Margo has left a trail of clues that will enable him to find her, and enlists the help of his best friends to track her down. Along the way, he learns that the Margo he’s pursuing — the one in his head — doesn’t match the Margo that other people remember  — that, in fact, everybody has their own imaginary version of Margo. All this helps Quentin realize that the Margo he’s been admiring from afar is mostly a projection of his own imagination and desires; the real Margo was  a real person with her own needs and problems. Through a mystery that ends in a zany, race-against-the-clock road trip, the novel punctures the tendency of lonely teenaged boys to idealize unattainable girls — which is really just a version of the problem we all have of idealizing or demonizing others, turning them into characters in our own stories rather than getting to know them as real, flawed people. For Quentin, finding out that Margo is nothing more than a human being might even be more important than finding Margo herself — if he ever does. You’ll have to read the book to find out if he does.

From a “mom reading young-adult novels” perspective, I’ll point out that this novel, like most of John Green’s books, contains enough references to drinking and sexual activity to make it believable as a novel about older teenagers, but as is often the case in Green’s books, the characters through whose eyes we see the story tend to be the ones least likely to overindulge and to recognize the stupidity of others’ behavior when they’re doing so. Still, parents of younger teens like mine should be aware that these kids don’t live in an artificially sanitized world, and there will be teenage parties where everyone gets drunk — just like in real life.

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An Abundance of Katherines, by John Green

abundanceI’ve been mired in one long, thick,  heavy book for much of the summer (you’ll hear more about that later) so at the times when I’ve needed a break (which is often) I’ve been catching up on some of the young adult novels my kids have been reading over the last year or so. As you know, I loved John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars (and love almost everything the man says and does generally) but there were still two of his books that I hadn’t read. I picked one up off the coffee table a couple of weeks ago — it turned out to be An Abundance of Katherines — and was immediately absorbed into its world.

An Abundance of Katherines is really a novel, I think, about the stories we tell ourselves and how we let them define it. Colin has just been dumped — for the nineteenth time, according to his reckoning — by a girl named Katherine. Not that the same Katherine has dumped him 19 times — all his girlfriends have been named Katherine, and they always break up with him. That’s how he defines himself: as the guy who gets dumped by Katherine. Also as a former child prodigy who’s not living up to his early promise. Colin’s best friend Hassan defines himself as the funny fat guy, as a Muslim, as a slacker who doesn’t want to go to college — and, of course, as Colin’s best friend and sidekick. An impulsive decision to take a road trip — combined with an even more impulsive decision to turn off and visit a spot that purports to be the gravesite of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand — causes both Colin and Hassan to question the stories they tell themselves — and others — about who they are. In other words they get a chance to redefine themselves — which is one of the things you should get to do on the ideal road trip. I liked this novel a lot and I’m glad my kids liked it too.

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Property, by Valerie Martin

PropertyProperty is an interesting novel about slavery in the American South — a novel that, for me, ended too soon. The main character, a young white woman named Manon, is married off to a somewhat older man who keeps one of his slaves, Sarah, as a mistress and has a child with her. It’s by no means a typical “love triangle” — it’s clear that Sarah hates and resents her master just as much as his wife does. When a slave uprising leads to the master’s death, the expectation might be that both women are set free  — but in a way they are more enslaved than ever. This is an extremely well-written short novel that is ruthless and incisive in exploring the evils of slavery and of the subjugation of woman. It also brilliantly avoids the pitfall of making the main character a modern woman in period dress — Manon is caught in a terrible situation and it’s easy to empathize with her, but she is entirely a woman of her times in terms of her view of slavery and her determination to get revenge on Sarah. As a result, she’s not really a likable main character; rather, she’s a character who forces us to recognize how one can be both oppressed and an oppressor.

When the novel ended, I was surprised (I was reading it as an ebook so hadn’t noticed how close to the end I was). It felt abrupt and shocking to have it end when it did, and I felt that I was left hanging with respect to what happened to the characters. I wanted to know more, which speaks to how thoroughly the story drew me in.

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Braco, by Lesleyanne Ryan

bracoLesleyanne Ryan’s Braco is a very tightly focused story about a sprawling and complex series of events — the civil war in the former Yugoslavia. Ryan herself spent time there as a Canadian peacekeeper in the mid-1990s: all these years later, she’s written a novel to try to make sense of the horrific events she witnessed there. Braco doesn’t attempt to tell the whole story of the war but rather focuses on a handful of characters during the five days after the fall of Srebernica, all in some way connected to the central character Atif, a Muslim boy who is fleeing with his family to the safety of a refugee camp.

I often tell students in my World History class that the early 1990s were an amazing time to be alive. With the end of Soviet communism, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the release of Nelson Mandela and the end of apartheid in South Africa, it really felt, albeit very briefly, as if humanity were getting its collective act together, as if problems that had plagued the world for decades could be resolved overnight through simple acts of courage and vision. Of course my students all grew up in the post 9/11 era when this seems like an obvious misunderstanding, but even before the 9/11 attacks, I tell them, two major events of the mid-90s made it obvious that any old problems we managed to solve would simply be replaced with new ones. One was the Rwandan genocide and the other the civil war in the former Yugoslavia. Of the two, the Balkan war probably hit closer to home for many of us because we think of Europeans as being more “like us” — I had Yugoslavian friends in college, had travelled through there briefly in 87 while backpacking in Europe, etc. Also, of course, many Canadian peacekeepers like Ryan served there, making the horrors there seem a little more real, though still beyond imagination, to those of us at home.

The perspectives in this book include those of a Serb soldier, a Bosnian soldier, a Dutch peacekeeper, a Canadian photographer, fourteen-year-old refugee Atif, and Atif’s mother. Atif is fleeing to safety with his mother and little sister, but he is advised to separate from the group and try to make his way to safety alone because men, including old men and boys younger than Atif, are being pulled from the refugee camps and buses by Serb soldiers — allegedy to be tried as war criminals, but in many cases to be summarily shot. The small human drama — whether Atif, one boy out of thousands, will be safely reunited with his family? — is set against the backdrop of the much larger conflict. Will the rest of the world intervene to stop the atrocities? What kind of intervention is needed, or appropriate, in a civil war where it’s not always easy to tell “good guys” from “bad guys”? How do humans survive and cling to their humanity in the midst of appalling violence — whether they are the victims, the perpetrators, the rescuers or the recorders? Every character in this short, powerful novel struggles with these questions. Ryan could not have chosen a better lens through which to focus the story of a conflict that was then, and 20 years later remains, so complex that many people in North America, hearing about it on the news, never fully grasped “what was going on over there.” Putting a human face — Atif’s face — on the war makes it real and unforgettable.

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