The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
I had read an excerpt of this book in O magazine a couple of years back and remember being fascinated, but life got in the way of me tracking the book down. Then, in a a book universe twist of fate, I saw a well-worn paperback copy on the shelf in my friend’s guest room in Yellowknife in September when I was there to launch my book. I started reading it there and was completely hooked and luckily my friend had already read it and released it to my care. I kept reading it through my travels to Whitehorse and back home to Edmonton, where I may have neglected my family a bit to finish it.
This is one of the best books I have ever read – full stop. I was captivated by the narrative, dialogue, and the honesty of Skloot and the people she wrote about in this creative nonfiction look at the life of one woman, Henrietta Lacks, and the immortal cells her cancer provided for the world. The author adeptly shows how intertwined race, science, medicine, ethics, and culture are – and how we as writers are part of the story of every article, book, or piece we create. Skloot’s empathy is palpable for all the people involved but she never lets anyone off the hook for their actions (including herself). It’s no wonder this has received so many accolades; they are all richly deserved.
I met Elinor Florence online through a mutual acquaintance months before her book was released by Dundurn this year – the same publisher that just put out my latest book. We hit it off and ended up doing two ‘War Birds’ events in Red Deer on Remembrance Day weekend, where we traded copies of our books. It’s been sitting on my to-read pile ever since, and I finally got to it this past week. As is often the case with books, it was perfect timing.
It seems like several key points of this sweeping, World War II-era novel take place around Christmas and New Year’s, and I certainly appreciated my family, friends and the peace and plenty that surrounds me as the book’s narrator and protagonist, Rose Joliffe, experiences the horrors and privations of war.
Florence, who has decades of journalism and editing work to her credit, really knows how to bring Rose’s story to life. Rose starts out in a small Saskatchewan town called Touchwood working for the local newspaper. She has just graduated from high school and is naïve, idealistic, but smart as a whip. She is determined to join up and so goes overseas to be part of the Royal Air Force and is quickly assigned to the photographic interpretation section where her skills and intuition prove invaluable. Unfortunately, her instincts fail her a bit when it comes to her dashing superior officer.
While I wanted to take her by the shoulders and give her a good shake sometimes, I really rooted for Rose, and by the end of the book she – like so many who lived through the war – is changed, in many ways for the better. She certainly doesn’t take anything for granted in life and love, and I think she, along with the reader, is reassured by humanity’s amazing resilience in the face of tragedy.
I was very moved by this heartwarming novel, and Florence is an excellent writer whose clear storytelling really pulls you along. I disappeared into the book for hours at a time and stayed up too late on more than one night reading it, but it was worth it.
The holidays are here and I’m feeling extra merry, so I wanted to share a free download of my first book, For the Love of Flying for the next few days! Please click on this link to be taken to the PDF and feel free to share the URL with your friends and family. (Please note: I had to make the images low-to-medium resolution for file size)
I found this book while perusing the YA section of my local library. The title and cover immediately caught my eye as I’ve been watching Ripper Street lately and am reading (and writing) lots of historical fiction these days.
Abbie Sharp is a young woman who has just returned to London after the death of her mother, to live with her very Victorian grandmother in a stuffy mansion. Sharp is just as her name suggests: perceptive, suspicious, and capable of sticking up for herself thanks to her somewhat rough and tumble childhood in Ireland. Her backstory is perfect for explaining why she is so unlike the typical women of her class and breeding at the time. Of course, so are her visions of Jack the Ripper.
The author, Amy Carol Reeves has a PhD in Victorian Literature, and it shows in her knowledge of the time period and its details. She creates a very believable world from the mores and values, to the Victorian obsession with science and technology and categorizing people, animals and other ‘tangibles’. I especially appreciated how Reeves includes the medicalization of childbirth during this era and the experimentation on C-sections. It really all does connect well with Jack the Ripper and heightens the sense of death and foreboding.
Reeves really hits her stride in the last third of the book, and I bet her next titles will be even tighter in their pacing and paranormal flourishes. I’ll look forward to reading them and recommending them to young and old(er) alike for a fascinating window into this period and place.
Crow Lake by Mary Lawson
I stumbled upon this novel on the shelf of a cottage rental on the coast of BC, and couldn’t think of a better read for that trip: as I looked into tidal pools on the edge of Gabriola Island I thought of Kate and Matt Morrison gazing into the ponds near Crow Lake at the life within. I was immediately pulled in by the strong story, the great characters, and the gently simmering tension in this fictitious northern Ontario town. I grew up in that province and have spent quite a bit of time in the Canadian Shield, the same kind of setting as the fictitious Crow Lake. I also have a lot of farmers in my family – past and present – and the rural/urban divide, importance of family and community, but also the “breakaways” that go away to university and don’t quite fit in anymore, all rung true. As is the sense that we create narratives for the lives of the people around us that don’t always jive with their versions of themselves – that we can get locked in to a certain story that blocks us from moving forward with the people we love. I heartily recommend this book to anyone who likes CanLit and loves a great yarn.