Category Archives: novel

Books for Booklovers

Sometimes I get the feeling that it is not me selecting the next book to read, but that the book is waiting for me to read it.

Recently I read two books that beautifully complemented each other without me realizing it until I delved into the second one.

The first book is by one of my favourite nonfiction authors: Ross King. His books take place in Italy and are all based on historic facts. I loved Brunelleschi’s Dome and Michaelangelo and The Pope’s Ceiling. Both books took me straight into medieval Italy.

When I saw the new, and beautifully executed title The Bookseller of Florence, I had to read it.

The book is a feast for the eye and focuses on all things book: the history of writing, printing and producing manuscripts. I have never left so many sticky notes all over the pages because I wanted to remember all of the fascinating tidbits. 

I did find this book lacking in story line. It did focus on one person: Vespasiano da Bisticci who created and preserved many important books and was the hub of scribes and book producers in medieval Florence. However, unlike the other books, I did not get swept away with strong characters and a spell binding plot. The nonfiction facts, however, were fascinating enough to keep me reading. I learned much about the creation of original books, and enjoyed meeting Gutenberg and learning more about his press. Ross King’s knowledge about politics, economy and life in Europe in this era, is more than impressive.

• The Bookseller of Florence, Ross King, ISBN 978-0-385-69297-7, Doubleday

Having read that book first, I was amazed when I got into my next book, a fictional story called The Scribe of Siena by Melodie Winawer. I am not crazy about adult fiction but this one really appealed to me because of the ‘scribe’ part and because I spent time in Siena. Having been there, I could totally picture the setting: the streets, the Campo, the tower, the church.

This story starts in New York and is contemporary. Neurosurgeon Beatrice Travato inherites a house in Siena. It’s well written but involves time travel – something I wasn’t sure about in an adult novel. I enjoyed time travel in children’s books like The Root Cellar by Janet Lunn. But in this realistic adult book? Hhhmmm…                                   However, the story is so well told that I did not mind the time travel aspect, although I did find I had to buy into it. Beatrice time travels, in a solid, believable manner, to Siena of the mid 1300’s. The book is mysterious and exciting. The solid research behind it makes the characters (names I recognized from the nonfiction book), life and setting real. I was glad I had the knowledge of the previous book, The Bookseller of Florence, because this one too, focused on a scribe copying on parchment. A fascinating read and highly recommended as a twosome.

• The Scribe of Siena, Melodie Winawer, ISBN 978-1-5011-5226-9, Simon & Schuster

The Forest Lover by Susan Vreeland

I knew Susan Vreeland as the author of Girl in Hyacinth Blue, which I really enjoyed. So when I saw this title, I grabbed it.
I took the book with me on a trip to Haida Gwaii in northern BC, which turned out to be the perfect place to read it since The Forest Lover is the story of Emily Carr.

I did not know much about Emily Carr besides a few commonly known facts and her paintings.
I can’t imagine the amount and time and research the author must have spent to find so many little personal details. The book is historical fiction since it gives the characters dialogue, but it does read like nonfiction since it is so closely based on a real life.
You get to know Emily’s family, her parents and sisters. You travel along on her physical and her psychological journey as she grows both as a person and as an artist. In an era where women artists were not common, Emily travels throughout BC but also to England and France. She learns about life and about painting techniques. We see struggles in her personal life and in her strong, defiant character.
At first I had a little bit of trouble getting into the story but soon I was caught up in the person that was Emily Carr. Through the story I also learned much about aboriginal life on Canada’s West Coast (she was one of the few white people whom First Nations people embraced as a close friend). I learned about First Nations villages and homes, about potlatches and totems, food, fishing and much more.
All in all, I found this a fascinating book and admire the incredible amount of research done to bring Emily Carr to life on the pages.

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Image result for inside out and back again

June 20 is World Refugee Day.
If you have read my book Stepping Stones (illustrated by Nizar Ali Badr and published by Orca Book Publishers), you might enjoy a novel with a similar theme.

Inside Out & Back Again is a beautifully written free verse novel. I love free verse, if it is well done. And this Newbery Honor Book is lovely crafted, a tender tale told from the inside out. Much of the story is autobiographical. In her Q & A pages in the back of the novel, the author explains her own story and how she struggled with finding the right tone for this book. Free verse turned out to be the perfect voice.

Told in the voice of ten year old Há, this is a refugee story from Vietnam.
But it is more than that. It is the story of a close knit family, of loss and love. It is a story of the importance of brothers and how strong a mother can be. It is also the story of how resilient a child can be and how many obstacles for people face in life.

Treat yourself to this fascinating, beautiful read and share it with students to discuss refugees – now and in the past. This book is also winner of the National Book Award.
Harper, ISBN 978-0-06-196279-0

Rebel Queen by Michelle Moran


When I picked up Rebel Queen, I found the cover intriguing but the woman’s thigh and her sword did not exactly made me want to read this book. Although I liked the title.

Once I read the short content I really knew I wanted to read this story. But I was still skeptical. The story takes plays in the mid 1800’s in India. I wasn’t sure this was my kind of book. However, as soon as I started reading, the use of language and the tone of storytelling pulled me in. 

All along, I marveled at the skillful writing. “How did this writer do all this research?” I kept asking myself. I loved this unique story with its colourful characters, its strong plot, with its passion and violence and unique setting. The customs, the food, the smells, the sights and sounds of India. I learned how people in India cooked meals, how they behaved and why, what their homes looked like. I learned about living in purda and other customs. It all pulled me in and took me along on an exotic journey.

But what made it a truly amazing story is the fact that this is a true story. The real Rebel Queen was an Indian rani, married to the raja of Jhansi. Their kingdom was fine until the British invaded, wanting to conquer all of India. The story that unfolds is told in the voice of one of the queen’s female bodyguards, her so called Durga Dal. I kept wondering how much the author had invented to make the story work. But, once I finished reading, I did some research and to my amazement I found that almost all of the story is true. The length to which this queen went to protect her country are incredible. Apparently all Indians know about this amazing woman. I’m glad I do, too, now because of this book.

If you want to read a ‘different’ book, set in a unique place in history, about strong females – this is the book. The queen and her all female guard really existed and resisted the British in an admirable, albeit bloody, manner. Great writing!

Click here to see an interview with the author:

Hardcover: 368 pages
Publisher: Touchstone (March 3, 2015)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1476716358
ISBN-13: 978-1476716350

Two Weeks With The Queen by Morris Gleitzman

Remember to 1] support your local bookseller, but 2] you can order from
Dear Your Majesty the Queen,

I need to speak to you urgently about my brother Luke. He’s got cancer and the doctors in Australia are being really slack. If I could borrow your top doctor for a few days I know he/she would fix things in no time. Of course Mum and Dad would pay his/her fares even if it meant selling the car or getting a loan. Please contact me at the above address urgently.

Yours sincerely,
Colin Mudford.

This is not a hoax.
Ring the above number and Aunty Iris will tell you.
Hang up if a man answers.

This is how Two Weeks With The Queen starts.
I like Morris Gleitzman’s books for their tongue-in-cheek humor. But when I finished this book I was struck by the fact that he dealt with difficult issues: homosexuality, cancer and more – in such a wonderful, lighthearted manner.

This is a humorous but deeply moving story about Colin, who refuses to believe that his younger brother is dying of cancer. Colin takes matters in his own hands and decides to go to the top for help, who better than the all mighty Queen? Colin’s efforts to reach Her Majesty are hilarious, surprising and doomed to failure. But even if Colin can’t find a cure for cancer, he does find a way to help some of his new friends, as well as discovering the best thing he can do for Luke and his family. A tender, tough story that could be serve as a read-aloud to discussion the issues together.

  • Paperback: 128 pages
  • Publisher: Puffin Bks (March 4, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 014130300X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0141303000

Charles and Emma, The Darwins’ Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman

I recently spotted this hardcover and bought it at a literacy conference. I had seen reviews of it and the title appealed to me. I was curious. I have never read The Origin of Species but wanted to learn more about the man who wrote that groundbreaking book.
I was blown away while reading Charles and Emma. I kept thinking ‘what an amazing amount of research this author has done!’ and ‘how did she make all of these facts and quotes so readable?’
Charles Darwin was a young man in Victorian England when he went on a sea voyage around the world on the ship called the HMS Beagle. While visiting islands in South America and beyond, he collected specimens of plants and animals, recording information and labeling each item. 
Back in England, after 5 years, he and other scientists studied these artifacts in detail. They had been raised in the solid belief that God had created all things and that these things did not ever change. However, studying birds collected on the Galapagos Islands, they noticed minute differences in the beaks. Having observed earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, Darwin’s brain slowly made him realize that not all things were as constant as had been believed. He realized that changes, that evolution, were at work to allow all species the benefit of the fittest; to allow them to survive and adapt to their environment. He also realized that the earth was much older than the few thousand years the church said it was.
In Charles and Emma, I learned how scared Darwin himself was of his realizations. How he felt the need to document and proof his beliefs before sharing them with anyone. The book focuses on his personal life  with his beloved wife Emma. Emma was extremely religious and worried about her husband’s findings. Yet, even though she never shared his strong feelings, she helped and supported him. Her faith gave Charles a lot to think about as he worked on a theory that continues to spark intense debate even today. He was a thoughtful and kind man, supported by a loving, liberal family. This book is a unique glimpse into their world and into households of Victorian England. A fascinating read, no matter which side of the fence you are on. And look at all the awards it won! It is, in my opinion, one of those rare books that is both for YA (young adult) and adult – a true ‘anybody’ book.
‘Deborah Heiligman’s biography of Charles Darwin is a thought-provoking account of the man behind evolutionary theory: how his personal life affected his work and vice versa. The end result is an engaging exploration of history, science, and religion for young readers’.

Mr. Pip by Lloyd Jones

For years I kept coming across a scrap of paper on my desk, or in a drawer. The title of a book recommended by someone, I can’t even remember who recommended it.
Mr. Pip – the story of a teacher in the South Pacific’ that scrap of paper said. I never threw it out because the title held such promise. 
Then, a few weeks ago, I was cleaning up the shelves in the recycle book depot and there it was. A blue book with a photo of a palm tree and ocean. Mr. Pip by Lloyd Jones.
The book was in terrible shape: stained and possibly mildewed. But the title had so long been with me that I could not bear to part with it. I took it home.
And when I opened the tattered cover, I fell right in. I fell into the story and in love with the characters. What a work of great literature! What spell binding storytelling.
Take Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, transport it to an island in the South Pacific ravaged by mining, strikes and violence. Enter a young girl and a teacher who shares his love of literature. Weave in intrigue, suspense, some nonfiction and an exotic location.
The story is brilliant, full of beauty and horror. Full of gentleness and violence.
It is the tale of the impact a gifted teacher can have on eager children, the power of a good story to turn someone into a lifelong reader, even to influence a life. It’s even about how a story can claim a life.
It’s hard to sum up the storyline, I won’t even try. This is a book you need to read if you are a book lover, or a teacher, or an admirer of Dickens. To quote from the book itself:
‘You cannot pretend to read a good book.
Your eyes will give you away. So will your breathing.
A person entranced by a book simply forgets to breathe.’
I forgot to breathe throughout this story. A quote from the very last page of this 256 page book:
‘His survival was story. My Mr. Dickens taught every one of us kids that our voice was special, and that whatever else happened to us in our lives our voice could never been taken away from us.’
Lloyd Jones’ voice is special. It makes me want to try his other books.
I hope you will try this one.

Mr. Pip by Lloyd Jones, Random House, ISBN 978-0-676-97928-2

Walking Home, by Eric Walters

Walking Home

  • Age Range: 10 and up 
  • Grade Level: 5 and up
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday Canada; 1St Edition edition (September 23, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385681577
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385681575

Eric Walters has written over 90 books for children, many of them award winning titles. I have read most of them. But his latest book, Walking Home, did something none of his other books ever had: it made me cry at the end. I found it to be touching, interesting, heart warming and a well written story.

Walking Home is the story of a young brother and sister who become orphaned in a troubled, violent time and region of Kenya. The two decide to walk to the region where their mother grew up, in hopes of finding relatives who will take them in. Rather than be separated by government officials who will place them in different homes, they walk over 200 KM, through Nairobi, through villages and deserted stretches.

Eric Walters did his research for this book. To the extreme.
Not only has he build an orphanage in Kenya, and continues to support it financially as well be involved in many day to day operational decisions. He also took a group of children and walked the entire track described in his book. Putting his own feet in the dust of African roads, eating oranges from roadside stalls and hoping to find water from wells, he was able to make this a story that takes the reader right along. It introduces us to Kenyan customs and beliefs. It shows the landscape and the fabric of African life.

The margins of the book have symbols throughout. These symbols seamlessly combine the paper pages (or the e-book) with additional information online. Videos, interviews, maps and other details all add information to the story.

A portion of the cost of this book will be donated, by the publisher to Creation of Hope, Walters’ orphanage in Kenya.

This title can be complemented in the classroom by Eric Walters’ African picture books: The Matatu, My Name is Blessing and Hope Springs. The latter two stories come directly from the orphanage and are based on the true stories of children living there. Both are heartwarming tales, complemented by back pages with information.


Petey, by Ben Mikaelsen

Petey, by Ben Mikaelsen
Petey is a touching story of friendship, discovery, and the uplifting power of the human spirit.
In 1922, at the age of two, Petey’s distraught parents commit him to the state’s insane asylum, unaware that their son is actually suffering from severe cerebral palsy. 
Bound by his wheelchair and struggling to communicate with the people around him, Petey finds a way to remain kind and generous despite the horrific conditions in his new “home.” 
Through the decades, he befriends several caretakers but is heartbroken when each eventually leaves him. Determined not to be hurt again, he vows to no longer let hope of lifelong friends and family torment him.
That changes after he is moved into a nursing home and meets a young teen named Trevor Ladd; he sees something in the boy and decides to risk friendship one last time. Trevor, new to town and a bit of a loner, is at first weary of the old man in the wheelchair. But after hearing more of his story, Trevor learns that there is much more to Petey than meets the eye.
This timeless story is recommended for all ages!
Author’s website: for background information on this book.

Where The Heart Is by Billie Letts

Do you have this too?
Sometimes I’m searching for a new book to start reading, and I’ll scan one; read the jacket flaps of another… But they don’t quite appeal. Then suddenly you see one and you just know that’s the book you will spend the next few days or weeks with.

Where The Heart Is by Billie Letts is a fantastic (summer) read. I liked the cover, the short content sounded just right and once I start, I could not put this book down. Amazing that this is a first novel!
I loved everything about it: the premise of a teen pregnancy, the girl dumped by her boyfriend at Walmart; the way her life unfolds; the support characters; the realistic dialogue. I was ‘there’ with her all the way. And reluctant to let go when I finished the last page.

And now, when I just googled the author’s name to see what else she write, I am shocked to find out that she passed away 3 days ago… just while I was engrossed in her story. What a shame. But I will go to my library to look for the three other novels she published, including “The Honk and Holler Opening Soon” (1998) and “Shoot the Moon” (2004). Her husband, it turns out, wrote ‘August: Osage County‘.