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Reading by Lightning Paperback – Sep 11 2008


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 388 pages
  • Publisher: Goose Lane Editions; 1st Edition edition (Sept. 11 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0864925123
  • ISBN-13: 978-0864925121
  • Product Dimensions: 14 x 2.1 x 21.5 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 476 g
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #360,893 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

From Amazon

A Q&A with Joan Thomas

Amazon.ca: Lily Piper is one of the most fully alive heroines I've ever encountered. Was she your own invention, or were you inspired by someone?

Joan Thomas: I had the spine of a true story to start with. When my aunt was 16, her father took her out of school and sent her to England to look after his mother. All on her own, she took the train two thousand miles to Montreal and boarded a ship, and went to live with people she had never met. I was amazed when I heard about this.

Yet my aunt never talked about her excellent England adventure. None of my older relatives talk much about the past--they’re actually a little suspicious of people who dramatize their experiences or dwell on their feelings! So I had to make sense of this story with my imagination. I sent Lily to a different part of England than my aunt had visited, and I invented her experiences there. Lily is the result of my desire to create a character I could understand and relate to, one who experienced adolescence with the intensity that I experienced it. I think of her as a contemporary character living in the past. As a first-time novelist, I had no idea whether I could pull this off, but by the end Lily was so real to me that the final chapter pretty much wrote itself.

Amazon.ca: The story of the Isaac Barr's ill-fated Canadian prairie colony is a fascinating historical component of the story. Did your family have a personal connection, or was this just a story that captured your imagination?

Joan Thomas: I never knew my grandfather, but I was told growing up that he had come from England with the Barr Colonists, so I read what I could find about that movement. I went to the archives and poured over the passenger lists, where the names of everyone arriving in Canada by ship in any year are written in ink in someone’s crabbed handwriting. I never found my grandfather’s name. But by then I was hooked by the story of the Barr Colonists, the megalomaniac Isaac Barr and the naïve immigrants who were so sure their English superiority would carry them through.

Amazon.ca: There's irony in how the aspiring paleontologist George "tried, finally, to evolve, to fit into a different world, but couldn't do it fast enough," while Lily, raised in an evangelical Christian community with a mother who's powerfully fearful of change (especially changes in Lily's body), undergoes dramatic personal transformation before she finally feels at home in her world. Your next novel, Curiosity, due out next spring, also has evolution at its center: an intact skeletal fossil of a prehistoric dolphin-like creature, the first discovery of its kind, is unearthed by a 12-year-old cabinet-maker's daughter, who goes on to become a paleontologist well before Darwin publishes The Origin of Species. What makes the scientific story of evolution such a potent metaphor for exploring the lives of your characters, as well as the evolving relationship between science and our concept of ourselves?

Joan Thomas: I never studied science but I’m intrigued by fossils, those millions-year-old bits of the past. My decision to send George to Dorset for field school turned out to be a fateful one (for me—if not for George!). It was while I was researching the Dorset coast for Reading by Lightning that I discovered Mary Anning, the amazing young woman you mention, who found huge fossil remains at Lyme Regis back when no one had any sense of what these creatures were. I've since made three research trips to Lyme Regis, and have had a fantastic time walking that coast and writing a novel about Mary Anning and her sidekick, the geologist Henry de la Beche.

So evolution (in a literal sense) is more at the centre of Curiosity than it is of Reading by Lightning. When Mary Anning found the first ichthyosaurus in 1811, the townspeople thought she’d dug up a dragon, and the scientists coming down from Oxford thought it was the bones of a creature drowned in Noah’s flood. Mary Anning’s fossil finds were a huge challenge to their beliefs about nature and humanity’s place in it. Ideas of extinction and an old earth, concepts so important to evolution, were in the air.

Evolution is on my mind at the moment because of the crisis we face on the planet. Whether we can transform fast enough to avoid full blown ecological disaster--I see this as the major question of our age. As a novelist you approach such big ideas with caution. You’re writing stories, not political discourse. With Curiosity, I was really happy to have stumbled upon a story that, although it’s set in the early 19th century, raises ideas that are so timely.

As you suggest, I did see evolution as a metaphor for how the characters in both books develop. Fiction loves those moments when a character sees that the way she thought about herself and her world is faulty. As the title of Reading by Lightning implies, this awareness may come the way a lightning bolt illuminates the landscape in a storm, although the process of actually transforming the way you act in the world is often slower and subtler, as it was with Lily. As for George, his changes hurt me as I was writing them, because I really like George. He was so open and in love with the world, and he becomes less optimistic, more cynical. It was an evolution forced by brutal circumstances, and maybe it’s just as well that we don’t see what the war would have made of him in the end.

Quill & Quire

Most first-time novelists strain for the gold ring; Joan Thomas grabs it effortlessly in this wonderful book. Undoubtedly, her years editing, reviewing, and writing about other writers’ work in The Globe and Mail and elsewhere – winning a National Magazine Award in the process – have helped hone her skills. Reading by Lightning begins in Lancashire and rural Manitoba in the early years of the 20th century. William Piper has reluctantly emigrated to Canada as part of a shady scheme that lines its Christian leaders’ pockets. Since then, he has hung on by dint of endless, soul-winnowing labour, yet he manages to send his 16-year-old daughter Lily to England, ostensibly to assist her widowed grandmother but in actuality as a way of removing her from the clutches of her evangelical mother. Lily blossoms in England, finding warmth and easy affection. George, her autodidact cousin (“a brain on a stick,” his father growls), opens the world to her, and the two become “great pals.” But Lily is compelled to make them more – an impulse fuelled by hormones but doomed by history. The Second World War revs up, and George, desperate for experience, submits himself to the machine.  As George is drawn into the war, Lily is recalled to the farm in Canada to care for her ailing mother. Grieving and resentful, she finds herself back in a domestic trap of emotional and sensory deprivation. There is a risk that the novel could get stuck there too, but fortunately Thomas provides a surprising plot twist to keep the narrative moving. Although the war is far from over, Thomas’s final extraordinary scene leaves the reader with a sense of possibility and a faith in the future. Thomas’s finely nuanced sensibility variously evokes Austen, Alice Munro, and Richard B. Wright. She captures verbal intonations as if she has overheard them, and conjures characters so vividly that we can almost reach out and touch them. A remarkable debut.

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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By maureen cobb on Sept. 30 2009
Format: Paperback
Reading by Lightning This is a most enjoyable novel told through the eyes and voice of Lily Piper, a feisty, inquistive teenager who lives a strict life as a farm girl on the Manitoba prairies just before the start of world war two. Historically speaking, there are many interesting events shared in the story - especially the immigration of her father in 1903 led by the minister Isaac Barr. As you read the novel, you get such a good sense of farm life on the prairies at that time - droughts, no money, hard work and constantly waiting for the good Lord to pick the "good ones" and carry them off to glory! It is funny as well as excellent descriptions of people and events. As you read the novel, you feel yourself going right along with Lily as she goes to England and meets her warm loving extended family. Lily is a character who has great depth and honesty and one who matures throughout the novel and leaves us satisfied with who she has become. Looking forward to Joan's next novel!
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Donna Besel on Sept. 30 2009
Format: Paperback
Shortly after I read Joan Thomas' new book, I saw the DVD of "Atonement", a movie based on the novel by the Booker Prize winner and English writer,Ian McEwan. I could not help but compare the two. Both are set mainly in the time leading up to and including the chaos of World War II, although "Reading by Lightning" has the added benefit, for me, of starting out on a farm on the Canadian Prairies. I especially loved the early scenes where Lily Piper struggles within the confines of her fundamentalist family and community.
I had read the book "Atonement" much earlier and liked it, and also liked the movie very much, but I remember saying to myself, "Joan's book is better! It could be made into an Oscar winner!"
That got me thinking about why I enjoyed it so much. I could easily list the similarities between McEwan's and Thomas' writing:
a) captivating protagonist
b) meticulous historical research that supports but does not overwhelm the story
c) sympathetic and just-flawed-enough characters
d) brilliant and humorous insights into what it means to be in love and human
e) compulsive readability
f) precise, clear-minded, understated,elegant prose.
I have recommended "Reading by Lightning" many times, to friends and book clubs and they have all enjoyed it. And my immediate admiration has since been validated. The book has been nominated for several 2009 Manitoba book awards, won Thomas a trip to New Zealand to accept the award for best first novel in the Commonwealth, won a place on the year-long "On the Same Page" promotion (which seeks to get as many Manitobans reading a worthwhile local author - sort of like CBC's "Canada Reads") and now won this prize by Amazon for best first novel.
""Reading by Lightning" - Now a Major Motion Picture!!!
Read more ›
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Lana Mcgimpsey on Sept. 28 2009
Format: Paperback
Reading by Lightning is a very satisfying read. The characters lived on in my head each time I put the book down. The relationships between Lily and her mother and Lily and Aunt Lucy provided me with insights on parenting, love, and the complexity of family bonds. The descriptions of life on the prairies brought back memories of childhood and stories my mother has told me. Part of the novel takes place in England during WWII. I felt I was learning more about that period in history from a new perspective. The research in this novel seemed thorough, the writing so beautiful that I often stopped to read and re-read a passage. The opportunity to learn about the prairies, England, WWII, fundamentalism, relationships and more, learning sugar coated in fiction...just the way I like it. Read this wonderful novel by Joan Thomas...it will give you great pleasure.
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36 of 44 people found the following review helpful By P. Halliday TOP 1000 REVIEWER on July 13 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Much of this book takes place in the main character's mind. Since there is no punctuation used to indicate whether she is speaking or thinking, day dreaming or experiencing reality, it is hard for us to know what world we are in.

The author does an excellent job of portraying the isolation of the North American prairie. The author also does a good job of describing what it is like to be raised in evangelical fundamental dispensationalism, the rapture-believers who inhabit such books as the Left Behind series.

Probably a main goal of the author is to demonstrate that such narrow religion is unreasonable in a world that contains fossils and world wide wars that occur on a regular basis that do not wait for Armageddon. The author states no opinion at all as author. The main character is the one who makes up her mind based on evidence she finds while falling in love with her greatest teacher.

If you are familiar with fundamentalism, you will know the most potent force to undermine fundamentalism is genuine love. The falling in love kind of love is probably the fastest route, but also the love of friends and family who hold other views is potent, as evidenced by Lily's Aunt and cousin Madeleine, the long friendship of farmer Joe Pye, even the non-religious Nana who just loved and never prayed.

This is a coming of age novel. It is a study in what is real, what we tell ourselves when we are trying to fill in the blanks in what we know with what must have been in our efforts to understand the world around us when others either won't, can't, or forget to tell us what happened in order for us to make sense of a situation.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 3 reviews
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
Clever Yet Honest Sept. 29 2009
By Minerva - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
I never write reviews, but I had to comment after reading the last review. I thought this book was amazing! I was engaged from the get-go: I found the author's writing style so engrossing I couldn't shake the character's voices even when I wasn't reading the book. I couldn't put it down! I was instantly pulled into the story, and the relationships within a small harsh community. Lily Piper's voice is so compelling, and the amazing details the author inserts create such an evocative backdrop for the story. Every moment in this book lends itself to the story as a whole, not an instant or observation is wasted, and yet the narrative isn't forced. It's impossible not to sympathize with the spirited Lily Piper, who is constantly yearning to find her place within her family and larger community. To call this a coming of age tale does not do justice to the narrative of this novel, which explores the concept of self-definition: how do any of us, individually or collectively, define our place in the world?

The audience does not need to have had difficult parental relationships, have experienced harsh religion or the realities of war to be pulled into the emotional landscape that the author creates with such nuance for these events. The characters are so layered and believable; the author does a remarkable job of encouraging affection for often flawed individuals - just as you would feel for your own family!

Ultimately this book (and that last scene!) left me with an intense optimism - we make ourselves and our homes. Lily Piper is a protagonist full of strength and curiosity, and her observations of the world around her are constantly clever and heartbreaking, all at once. This is most definitely an adult book, but one I would recommend for anyone who once knew the yearning of the teenage experience. Reading by Lightning is simply a fantastic novel.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Step Aside, Ian McEwan! Oct. 17 2009
By Donna Besel - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Shortly after I read Joan Thomas' new book, I saw the DVD of "Atonement", a movie based on the novel by the Booker Prize winner and English writer,Ian McEwan. I could not help but compare the two. Both are set mainly in the time leading up to and including the chaos of World War II, although "Reading by Lightning" has the added benefit, for me, of starting out on a farm on the Canadian Prairies. I especially loved the early scenes where Lily Piper struggles within the confines of her fundamentalist family and community.
I had read the book "Atonement" much earlier and liked it, and also liked the movie very much, but I remember saying to myself, "Joan's book is better! It could be made into an Oscar winner!"
That got me thinking about why I enjoyed it so much. I could easily list the similarities between McEwan's and Thomas' writing:
a) captivating protagonist
b) meticulous historical research that supports but does not overwhelm the story
c) sympathetic and just-flawed-enough characters
d) brilliant and humorous insights into what it means to be in love and human
e) compulsive readability
f) precise, clear-minded, understated,elegant prose.
I have recommended "Reading by Lightning" many times, to friends and book clubs and they have all enjoyed it. And my immediate admiration has since been validated. The book has been nominated for several 2009 Manitoba book awards, won Thomas a trip to New Zealand to accept the award for best first novel in the Commonwealth, won a place on the year-long "On the Same Page" promotion (which seeks to get as many Manitobans reading a worthwhile local author - sort of like CBC's "Canada Reads") and recently won a prize by Amazon for best first Canadian novel.
""Reading by Lightning" - Now a Major Motion Picture!!!" I like the sound of that. Thank you, Joan Thomas, for a great book.
Oh yes, by the way, although Joan Thomas used to be an English teacher, her text does not follow standard rules of punctuation for dialogue. But it does not detract from the power of the writing.
3 of 13 people found the following review helpful
Reading by Lightning during WWII March 13 2009
By S. Agusto-Cox - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Reading by Lightning by Joan Thomas, published by Goose Lane Editions, made its way into my mailbox from Mini Book Expo. It's a coming of age novel at a time that the world is on the brink of World War II, particularly in England.

It took me a long while to get into this book, more than 100 pages, which was disheartening. In Book One readers will wander through Lily Piper's musings and her interactions or lack thereof with her parents. The wavering narrative and tangents of Lily drag on for long stretches, and readers may have a hard time following along. Her relationship with her mother is cantankerous at times and Lily is often portrayed as a wayward child led by the sin in her heart. There are a number of instances where Lily wanders off with boys alone, which in many ways should ruin her reputation.

"Wonderful for your maidenly inhibitions (going to hand me the flask and then reaching around me to unscrew it himself and in the process circling me with both arms). The way we tussled around and he pressed the mouth of the flask to my mouth and I resisted or pretended to resist, whiskey meanwhile sliding hotly in through my lips and dribbling down my chin and onto my bathing suit." (Page 88)

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