Monday, February 8, 2021

A New Year - A New Reading Challenge

 As in the past two years I am challenging myself to complete the Toronto Public Library Reading Challenge, so many of the books that I will review over the next few months fit into one of the categories in the challenge.

The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald

I selected this book for the category "a book about someone unlike yourself" as it tells the story of four men who emigrated from Germany in the 20th century. (I figure they're different on many counts - I'm a woman, they're all older than I am and they've all emigrated while I have lived my life in one country).

To be honest I didn't love this book - I found the stories a bit hard to follow and generally quite depressing. The book is structured as four separate stories - three of the emigrants are Jews who fled to England or Switzerland long before WWII, but are still significantly impacted by the Holocaust and ultimately die by suicide. The fourth story is about the narrator's great uncle who is not Jewish but emigrated to the US around the turn of the century and led and adventurous life there. But he too dies a terrible death.

The book contains pictures and is written more in the style of a diary or biography - narrated by the author (who is a German emigre to England). So the style is sort of unusual, but I just couldn't get past the depressing content.

The Last Days of John Lennon by James Patterson

I used this book for the category of "narrative non-fiction" which is an atypical genre for Patterson who usually writes fiction. Unlike the prior book, I really enjoyed this one. The narrative alternates between Lennon's life story (unlike what the title suggests we really get a full life biography of Lennon) and the story of his killer, Mark David Chapman, in the days leading up to his murder. Probably because Patterson typically writes thrillers, the chapters analyzing Chapman's motives and preparation are particularly well written.

I can't say Lennon (or Yoko Ono) came across as terribly likeable a lot of the time, but his history, and that of the Beatles, is nonetheless very interesting. While I knew their story on a high level, the detail provided gave me a more complete picture of their fame, their relationships with each other and others and the ultimate breaking up of the band.

I recommend this book if you have an interest in the Beatles - and maybe even if you don't but just like a well written dramatic tale.

Seven by Farzana Doctor

I used this book to satisfy the requirement for "a book with a one word title". I really enjoyed this one - even though at times the content was quite disturbing.

Sharifa and her husband, Murtaza, are immigrants to the US from India with a seven year old daughter, Zee. They are having trouble in their marriage, particularly sexually and, in an effort to improve things, Sharifa agrees to join Murtaza on a sabbatical in India. Sharifa, who is a teacher, decides that while she is there she will research her great-great grandfather, Abdoolally.  While his rags to riches tale and his philanthropy have become family legends, little is known about his four wives, other than the first two that died in childbirth. In particular, there is rumour his third marriage ended in divorce, but nobody knows for certain and, if it did, nobody knows why.

Sharifa's visit and her research lead her to be involved in the cause of female genital cutting which is prevalent in Sharifa's religious sect, though as a modern American woman she believes it has never touched her. As she learns more about the support the ritual has amongst her Indian relatives she becomes particularly concerned about Zee's wellbeing since she is seven, the exact age at which the cutting is supposed to occur.

The writing was excellent - I couldn't wait to find out more about Sharifa's ancestors, and her relationships with Murtaza, Zee and her mother, as well as her aunts and cousins in India. While some of the narrative about genital cutting and its long lasting physical and emotional effects on women was disturbing, that only enhanced the story Doctor was trying to tell.

I definitely recommend this book.

The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline

I read this book for the category "a book of speculative fiction by a BIPOC author" and frankly I wasn't sure if I'd enjoy it because speculative fiction is not usually my thing. But I ended up really enjoying it. It was extremely well written and there was enough "realism" to keep a speculative fiction sceptic happy.

The book takes place far in the future in a world ravaged by global warming where people have lost the ability to dream. Losing the ability to dream has led to widespread madness. The only people who are still able to dream are North American Indigenous people. The only cure for dreamlessness for others is the marrow of these Indigenous people.

This leads to an illicit trade for Recruiters in capturing Indigenous young people and extracting their marrow. The story is told from the perspective of Frances Frenchie Dusome, who is a teenaged Metis boy on the run from the recruiters. He joins up with a group of others, men and women, elders and children, and together they try to survive the harsh elements while escaping capture. The fictional account is of course reminiscent of the historical capture of Indigenous children for imprisonment in residential schools - a fate which some of the characters or their parents had suffered.

The author wove a fascinating story and developed complex, engaging characters. Being a young adult novel, it was also easy to read, but in no way simplistic. A very pleasant surprise.

Empire of the Wild by Cherie Dimaline

I enjoyed The Marrow Thieves so thoroughly that I decided to read one of her other books for the category "a book by an Indigenous woman or Two-Spirit Indigenous person". This one is not speculative fiction but does incorporate the traditional Metis story of the Rogarou - a werewolf like creature that haunts Metis communities.

Joan, who is heartbroken, has spent the last year searching for her husband Victor for a year. He went missing right after they had their first serious argument. One morning she is hungover and finds herself in a Walmart parking lot where she spots a revival tent which Metis people have been attending to hear a charismatic preacher, Eugene Wolff. When she wanders into the tent the service is over but she hears a familiar voice. When she turns around she sees Victor, however, he believes he is Eugene Wolf and he does not seem to recognize her.

As she digs into this mystery, with the help of an elder, Ajean, and her 12 year old nephew, Zeus, she is constantly obstructed by those surrounding Reverend Wolff who have an interest in him never remembering his past. The novel tells the story of Joan's quest to get her husband back, as well as the sinister underpinning to the revivalists who have enlisted the man she believes to be her husband.

While sometimes the mythical aspect is a bit hard to follow for someone like me who is uneducated in Indigenous legends, that doesn't detract from the quality of the story. While I preferred The Marrow Thieves, I would recommend this book too.

The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict

This book fit into the category as "a book about fame" as it told the story of the making of the actress Hedy Lamarr. In the early 1930s, Lamarr (then Hedy Keisler) was a young stage actress in Vienna when she caught the eye of a powerful arm's dealer, Friedrich Mandl. Lamarr is also Jewish and her father desperately fears the rise of Naziism in Austria. As such, he encourages her to marry Mandl, who at the time was allied with Italy in his desire to keep the Germans out of Austria, hoping he will be able to save Austria, and her family.

However, after marriage, Mandl turns out to be cruel and controlling - making her stop acting and essentially keeping her prisoner in her own homes (they have many opulent residences). She is required to entertain Mandl's many guests which does give her insight into the developing politics in Austria, and in particular, her husband's change of heart in his attitude to Germany.

Fearing her husband, and Austria's future, she manages to flee Germany for England, where she takes up acting again and engineers a meeting with Louis Mayer of MGM fame. She negotiates a contract with him and moves to Los Angeles, the only place she feels is safe for Jewish entertainers. In addition to acting she takes a strong interest in inventing, creating a laser system that she tries to sell to the US navy. However, she is severely restricted by her gender and her obligations to MGM.

From the afterward to this book, it appears that much of it was based on Lamarr's actual history - which means she lived and interesting and admirable life. She was far more than the "pretty face" she was known for in Hollywood.

The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish

This book was very long (567 pages) and complex, but for me worth the effort. Reading it was almost like figuring out a puzzle.

The novel brought together two stories in alternating sections. The modern day portion dealt with Helen, an elderly London based history professor with a particular interest in Jewish history who is called by a former student when he finds a collection of Jewish books and papers in his wife's ancestral home. She enlists the assistance of an American doctoral student, Aaron Levy, to visit the house and see what the collection was all about. They discover a large collection of letters which were written on behalf of a blind rabbi in the seventeenth century.

Careful review of the papers suggests the scribe was female, which would have been highly unusual at the time and that both she and the rabbi were of Portuguese descent having escaped the Inquisition to settle in Amsterdam and then London.

The other chapters tell us the story of the rabbi and, in particular, his scribe, Esther. As Helen and Aaron piece together the story, we are given the inside track by hearing it directly from Esther. In her words we hear a great deal about the Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam, the efforts to reestablish the Jewish community in London after years of exile, the restrictions put on women at the time, and even the impact of the plague.

In addition to solving this mystery, we learn about Helen's past and, in particular, why a WASPy woman has such a deep interest in Jewish history. And we learn a bit about Aaron's upbringing, difficulties with relationships and his doctoral thesis and why he is drawn to these papers.

I don't want to give more than that away because I really recommend you read this one for yourselves.

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

I really enjoyed Gyasi's prior novel, Homegoing, so I had high expectations for this one. Probably too high, because I was disappointed in the end. I fit this book into the category "a book about STEM" because the protagonist, Gifty, is a neuroscientist at Stanford who is studying reward-seeking behaviour in mice brains in an effort to explain addiction and depression. She has personal experience with both as her older brother, who she idolized as a child, was an addict, and her mother suffered (and still suffers) from severe depression.

While there is a fair bit of time spent on Gifty's present life and research, the vast majority of the book deals with the immigrant experience the US south. Her parents and her brother immigrated from Ghana before she was born. Her mother worked multiple jobs as a personal support worker and her father gets jobs as a janitor but ultimately can't take it and returns to Ghana. Gifty's mother struggles to support her children, but stumbles when her son becomes addicted to Oxytocin following a sports related knee injury.

While I found the story interesting, and well-written, I thought the scientific research and Gifty's current life could have been fleshed out a bit better. While I liked the book, I didn't love it.

Autopsy of a Boring Wife by Marie-Renee Lavoie

This was a funny, easy to read novel translated from French. While I couldn't fit it into any of the reading challenge categories, I'm glad I read it anyway. 

The book opens when 48 year old Diane's husband admits he is having an affair and leaves her "because he is bored". Of course he leaves her for a much younger woman. The book deals with the fallout of this - how Diane copes using her work, her friends, therapy and some disastrous steps into dating.

This is written almost like a diary and Diane's stories are both funny and touching. It also provides social commentary on the meaning of marriage - and the impact it has on the lives of girls and women.

I recommend this for a fun, distracting and clever read.

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John

While I enjoyed this book, I didn't think it lived up to its hype. I did find the style engaging - the chapters were told from the perspective of a multitude of characters and I was invested in getting to the end to see how they all fit together.

The main characters were arguably Vincent, a young woman from a remote island off Vancouver Island who is working at a high class hotel there when she catches the eye of the wealthy hotel owner, Jonathan Alkaitis. They enter into an arrangement whereby she pretends to be his wife - in exchange she is whisked away to the high class world of the super wealthy in New York City. The only problem - Alkaitis is in fact running a Ponzi scheme and living on borrowed time.

Some chapters are from Vincent's perspectives, others from Alkaitis'. But there are also chapters from the perspective of Vincent's half brother, Paul (in fact the book starts with him and I assumed he'd play a greater role), several of Alkaitis's investors, the night manager at the BC hotel, and some of Alkaitis' employees.

In addition to following the fallout of the Ponzi scheme, we learn a lot about his past, that of Vincent, Paul and the other characters and deal with the mystery of a couple of people who disappear into the ocean.

As I said, the book was entertaining, and well written, but not fantastic. 

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

A couple more books before year end

 In a Holidaze by Christina Lauren

Having read a number of rom coms by this author (which is in fact to co-writers), I knew what to expect - light, fluffy, feel good reading. The truth is I didn't love the premise of this one - Maelyn is a 26 year old woman who spends Christmas at a cabin in Utah with her immediate family and close friends with whom they have spent Christmas for decades. The holiday ends on a terrible note - she kisses Theo though she has always been in love with his older brother Andrew.

But, on the way home Maelyn's family is struck by a car (or so it would seem) and she wakes up on the plane about to relive the same vacation.  She gets sent back to the start twice more (once she falls down stairs and once she is struck by a falling tree branch), before she finally shakes up her behaviour and gets things right with Andrew. As such, it is all a bit weird since she is re-living these days but no one else around her seems to be. So you have to suspend your disbelief even more than usual for a rom com - which I'm not that great at doing (or maybe just don't enjoy doing).

The underlying romance story was fairly typical and engaging enough, and there were several peripheral characters who were interesting, but the overall premise wasn't for me.

The Authenticity Project by Clare Pooley

Unlike the last book, I quite liked the premise of this one. Julian an elderly, previously famous, artist writes in an empty notebook that he finds at Monica's cafe. He entitles it "The Authenticity Project" and in it he ponders how the world would look if everyone actually admitted the truth about themselves - his most compelling story is of his terrible loneliness. He leaves the notebook behind in the cafe hoping it will be found by someone who adds to it.  

The notebook is picked up by Monica, the cafe owner. She does add to it - talking of her desire for lasting love and to be a mother. She also feels for Julian and endeavours to address his loneliness by hiring him to teach weekly art classes at the cafe. Monica leaves the notebook in a bar where it is picked up by Hazard, an addict and financial trader. He leaves his job and decides to sober up - to get away from it all he spends months in a remote part of Thailand. He takes the notebook with him and makes it his project to find a mate for Monica. He settles on an Australian tourist, Riley, who is headed to London. Before tucking the notebook in Riley's luggage he tells the truth of his addiction and his plan to help Monica.

Riley finds the notebook in his bag while on the plane to England and can't help but try to seek out Monica. So he shows up at her cafe and befriends her, without telling her the truth of how he's found her. Riley joins Julian's art class and spends more time with both him and Monica, and feels very guilty the more time passes without him admitting he did not end up at the cafe by chance. He writes all of this - and his true feelings for Monica in the notebook which he leaves in a playground where it is picked up by Alice. 

Alice is a young mother struggling with her newborn baby and in her marriage. She is also an Instagram influencer who is constantly posting pictures staged to make her life look perfect. She too visits Monica's cafe after reading the notebook and befriends the whole group (which comes to include Hazard when he returns from Thailand).

While some of the book is humorous and light, and there are definite rom com moments, it also deals quite seriously with addiction, postpartum depression and the debilitating effects of loneliness.

I quite enjoyed this one.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

 This book was the 2019 Booker winner and also came highly recommended. I was skeptical at first, because it took me a while to get into it, but I ended up enjoying it - with some qualifications.

First, it takes some time to get used to the style. It is written almost as a stream of consciousness - with irregular grammar and punctuation. Once I got into it I found the style actually made it easy to read - almost like following a live conversation. It flowed very naturally.

There were also a lot of characters - and at first it seemed more like a collection of short stories as it took time for the interrelationships to be revealed. I found it interesting to see how all the women connected to each other, but unfortunately there were so many characters that by the time some of the later ones revealed their connections to an earlier character I couldn't really remember the back story of the earlier character. And remembering the back story would probably have enriched my appreciation of the connections between the characters. I read this in an e-version and it may have helped to read a hard copy as it's always easier to refer back.

The basic premise of the book is to examine the varying lives of black women, girls (and one non-binary "other") in England. Their ancestry is varied - different African and Caribbean countries - some are first generation, others third or fourth. While men wander in and out of most of the women's lives, for better or for worse, the men are really peripheral characters.

Each of the chapters develops the life of the one character in its title (and their immediate friends and family). Most of the stories begins in the present and move back into the character's past. Some of the characters are more historical so there is no present day action though they are connected to present day characters.

Here are some of the key characters - at least the ones I can remember:

Amma is a lesbian playwright and director who has finally hit the big time with a show at the National Theatre. In some ways I guess you could call her the main character as much of the present day narrative revolves around her opening night and the after-party. Most of the other characters have found their way to the production for one reason or another.

Her daughter, Yazz is a college student. The second chapter explores her life and the lives of several of her friends. We also learn about her father - a gay friend of her mother's who is now a successful and famous lecturer.

The third chapter is about Amma's friend Dominique who has emigrated to the US - following another woman into a terrible relationship but surviving that and staying in the US.

Other characters are Amma's childhood friend, Shirley, who has become a jaded schoolteacher and is derided as boring by Amma's more artsy friends. 

Shirley's former student, Carole, who following a traumatic experience at age 13 is mentored by Shirley, eventually attending Oxford and becoming a successful banker married to a successful white man. Years later Shirley is still resentful that Carole never thanked her.

Carole's mother, Bummi, a Nigerian immigrant has set up her own cleaning business and gets a job cleaning for Shirley's twice married, vaguely racist colleague, Penelope. However, when we get to Penelope's story we learn her prickliness is covering up from immense hurt in her childhood.

Morgan is a non-binary social media influencer - and we learn of her childhood where her mother tried to force her into an uncomfortable feminine mold and of her strong relationship with her great-grandmother, Hattie, who accepts her (and her transgendered partner) and welcomes their help on the family farm which she is determined to keep in the family.  Hattie's past was also full of childhood trauma, a difficult marriage and several miscarriages and infant deaths.

One of the chapters entirely based in the past revolves around Hattie's mother Grace, who never knew her Abyssinian father and was haunted by that throughout her life prompting Hattie to attempt to find out about him.

Despite the reservations I referred to above, the book does a tremendous job of examining the lives of women faced with racial, class and gender discrimination. And whatever the connection between the women, or their differences, what they all show is tremendous strength of character and determination to live the lives that they want to live.

Friday, November 20, 2020

How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Tammavongsa

 I almost didn't read this book for two reasons. First, in recent years I have been disappointed in the Giller winner. And, second, it is a collection of short stories and I generally prefer novels. But, I'm very glad I overcame those hesitations and decided to read this one. In my view it is definitely deserving of the Giller.

The short stories are all about immigrants to Canada from Laos, though they certainly describe a universal immigrant experience. They are told from many perspectives - the school aged girl who is teased because her father gave her the wrong pronunciation of knife; a boxer who must quit the sport and finds a job in his sister's nail salon; a young girl who helps her mother pick worms on a farm; another young girl whose mother is infatuated with Randy Travis; an older woman who has an affair with her much younger neighbour; and a school bus driver whose wife is having an affair with her boss.

What all of the characters have in common is their striving to survive in a new world - facing obstacles of language, poverty, and underemployment. But none of them give up despite the difficulties - and they are generally very devoted to at least one person in their family. Their resilience made them very likeable characters and the focus on the small details which make up an immigrant's life made for engaging reading.

I certainly recommend this collection of stories.

A Family Affair by Nadine Bismuth

 I quite enjoyed this book. It is by a French Canadian author and is translated from the original French. It is an excellent translation as it is easy to read and the language does not feel forced at all.

The central character is Magalie, a kitchen designer and mother of a young girl. Magalie discovers her partner, Mathieu, is cheating on her and decides to have an affair, essentially for revenge. She first gets involved with her business partner, Olivier. While they are compatible and there are truly no strings attached it ends when Olivier's wife gets pregnant and Magalie discovers one of their other colleagues knows about them.

She then gets involved with an even more unlikely man, Guillame, the divorced son of her widowed mother's new boyfriend. Guillame is a police officer who shares custody of his teenaged daughter with his ex. He is taken with Magalie, but has absolutely no idea how to go about getting her attention which leads to some humorous scenes.

The relationships between Magalie's mother and her boyfriend and Mathieu and his girlfriend are also explored, making the book a rather in depth look at various couples - how they interact with each other and with others around them.

Overlaying the personal action is a news story about a woman who seemingly vanished from the parking lot of a local shopping mall. This puts all of the women in the book on edge, but Magalie and her colleagues are particularly troubled as their office overlooks the park where the missing woman's boyfriend was apparently playing soccer when she disappeared, thus giving him an alibi.

As the novel progresses, the mystery of the missing woman is resolved, but Magalie's life seems even messier. Which makes the book very realistic.

I quite enjoyed this book.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

A Few More Titles

After my last post, I promised myself I would not get so far behind on my posting. And, yet again I've left it until I finished a number of books (though not nearly as many this time)!

Coming Up for Air by Sarah Leipciger

I picked up this book because the library decided to make it available to whoever wanted to read it with no waiting list. And I'm really glad they did that as I had not otherwise heard of it and I really enjoyed it.

The novel is a little unusual.  It follows three different characters and it took until almost the end for me to figure out how the stories related to one another (and I'm usually quite good at that). Thematically all of the stories had water, swimming and/or drowning as a main component and they were definitely tied together in that way, if not by plot.

The first character was a young woman in Paris at the end of the nineteenth century. The book opens with her stepping into the Seine and drowning herself. So it is not a spoiler when I tell you that happened.  Her story then moves back in time where we learn of her difficult childhood in a small French village, her move to Paris to be a lady's maid, her romantic relationship with another young woman and ultimately the events that led to her taking her life.

The second character is Amund, a toymaker in Norway in the 1950s. He is also the father of two small children. His connection to water begins at a young age when he spends time fishing at his grandparents' cabin. He returns to this cabin multiple times throughout his life and reconnects with the sea. Amund at times neglects his family in his quest to develop a plastic that will make lifelike dolls.

The final character is Anouk - she is a Canadian living in the present day and suffering from cystic fibrosis. As a result she is awaiting a lung transplant and is constantly struggling to come up for air. Despite her difficulties she feels most at home in the water - whether the lakes near her Northern Ontario home as a child or Lake Ontario when she moves to Toronto.

All of the stories move back and forth in time a bit - and then the book moves from character to character - so you really do have to pay attention to keep track of the pieces.  But I found it worth it - and while the plot connection was perhaps a bit tenuous, it was real and it was interesting (and in part based on historical facts). The book was well written, particularly all the water related imagery.

I recommend this book.

Finding Freedom: Harry and Meghan and the Making of a Modern Royal Family by Omid Scobie and Carolyn Durand

I thought it might be interesting to gain some more insight into Harry and Meghan's relationship and their distancing from the Royal family. The authors are journalists who had tremendous access to the royals as part of their jobs - and it does look like they did a lot of research to back up their story. However, in the end I found it a little boring.  It didn't really add a lot to what I've read on Twitter. I don't really recommend this unless your a Harry and Meghan die hard who wants to read everything they can about the couple.

The Friendship List by Susan Mallery

This was a fun escapist novel. Ellen and Unity are two women in their late 30s who have been best friends since childhood. They are living in their home town and each are in a rut for different reasons. Ellen is the single mother to a son who is headed to college soon. She got pregnant with him as a teenager and has not dated or had sex since. She overhears her son say he won't go away for college because he's afraid to leave her alone since he's all she had. This prompts her to prove to him that she has a life outside of him (which she is now going to have to manufacture).

Unity is grieving her husband who died in the military three years earlier. She is living in his childhood bedroom and while she is running her own handyman business, she doesn't take any risks personally or professionally.

So the two women come up with a list of things to do to challenge themselves and each other - like skydiving and getting tattoos and, of course, finding men. So the story deals with their successes and failures in ticking off the things on the list.  None of it is very surprising, the plot is predictable, but the characters are engaging and it's a great escape.

A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership by James Comey

I was moved to read this book after watching The Comey Affair mini-series. It is very well written and provides interesting insights into the life of the former FBI director who was fired by Donald Trump. I imagine he is a rather happy man since the election results were announced.

The book does not just deal with his time in the FBI, however. It also talks about his time as a district attorney and prosecutor as well as in private legal practice and as deputy attorney general during the Bush administration.

Interestingly, while he calls himself a Republican, it would appear he has the greatest respect for Obama of all the Presidents he worked under. One of the other very interesting aspects was his time working in New York and prosecuting Mafia leaders. The comparisons of how they govern to how Trump governs are remarkable.

The insights he gives into the Hilary Clinton e-mail scandal are also fascinating - he was clearly in a no win situation when faced with that one. I'm still not sure he should have announced he was reopening the investigation - or maybe he should have announced the investigation into Russian interference in the election at the same time - but I have greater respect for the extremely difficult decision he had to make.

Although some of his "lecturing" about leadership style were of less interest to me, all in all this was a surprisingly easy and engaging read.

Troubles in Paradise by Elin Hilderbrand

This is the third book of Hilderbrand's trilogy set on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. I would not recommend reading these books out of order - I don't think they'd make much sense. This one ties up a lot of loose ends for Irene, and her sons Baker and Cash, who on the death of their husband/father, Russ, discovered he had a whole other life on St. John, including a girlfriend and a daughter. The book provides more insight into the business that brought Russ to the island as well as his death.

We also see more of Irene's relationship with Huck (ironically the step-father of her husband's deceased girlfriend), as well as Baker's with Ayers (who was the girlfriend's best friend) and Cash's with a woman who surprisingly enough had no prior relationship with Russ or his girlfriend.

At the end of the novel Hilderbrand also brings in a character from her Winter Street series set in Nantucket. It really didn't add much to the plot and seemed more like an update on that family's life to please regular readers.

I enjoy the escapism Hilderbrand brings to her novels and this trilogy was no different. I especially liked how she didn't leave anything hanging at the end of this one so we know the story has come to an end (I guess, at least for now).

His Only Wife by Peace Medie

This was a really interesting novel set in Ghana. Afi is a young girl living in the small town of Ho with her mother and a large extended family following the death of her father. She is learning to be a seamstress and is starting to master those skills. On the death of her father, Afi's uncles were not terribly charitable to her and her mother and they were instead taken under the wing of a local businesswoman, Aunty Ganyo. Aunty Ganyo is not happy with the woman her middle son, Elikem, is involved with and proposes an arranged marriage with Afi. Afi's mother encourages her to proceed with it - and she does.  They are married traditionally (not in Church or a courthouse) and, in fact, Eli is married to her in absentia as he is traveling abroad.

Eli's brothers bring Afi to an apartment in the capital promising Eli will eventually leave the other woman and join his wife. She is happy with the luxurious surroundings and finds a place to learn fashion design, but she longs for her husband to be hers alone.

Eli seems to come and go on a whim - and he is kind and caring when he is with Afi. She also wants for nothing materially. But she is clearly sharing her husband with the other woman and their daughter - even when she gives birth to his son. Though he seems to actually love Eli, he clearly loves the other woman too. It is his family who do not like her (mostly because they can't control her).

This is a very interesting story of how men in certain cultures are free to "collect" women and how women can be psychologically damaged by this arrangement, even when there is no physical abuse. It also shows the tremendous influence family can have on behaviour - both how Aunty Ganyo controls Eli and his brothers and how Afi and her mother are under the control of her paternal uncles.

I really enjoyed this book - it was well written, the characters were interesting and it told important stories without coming across as explicitly moralizing.

Resilience is Futile: the Life and Death and Life of Julie S. Lalonde by Julie Lalonde

I had trouble putting this one down. Julie Lalonde is a well know advocate for women's rights. She works for organizations trying to bring awareness about harassment and inequality. She became very well known for taking on the Canadian military after a terrible experience trying to do sexual assault prevention training at the Royal Military College. The title of the book has roots in her graduate thesis which looked at poverty stricken elderly women. One of her research conclusions was that this group is overlooked and underserved precisely because of their resilience - in other words they don't complain so they don't get help of services.

For ten years - while she is studying and then working and gaining national attention through a multitude of media interviews - she is also hiding that she is a victim of abuse. Her high school boyfriend, who started as a good friend, became very controlling and psychologically, physically and sexually abusive. When she finally left him he stalked her for ten years - her friends who rescued her knew some of the story, as did her family, but nobody knew the extent of his perseverance and her terror. Eventually she raised the issue in therapy and started to gain some insight into her situation, but it was only her stalker's death that brought it to an end.

This is a fascinating look at the extensive toll abuse can take and how even women who appear to be very successful can be struggling to overcome its consequences.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

A Series of Brief Reviews

I've been busy lately (though never too busy to read), so I haven't had a chance to update my blog in a couple of months.  Just to keep things moving, I've decided to post shorter than usual reviews of the books I've read over the this time period.

Midnight Train to Prague by Carol Windley

This is yet another Nazi era saga - again not focused on the Jewish angle which seems to be the case with a lot of the World War II books I've read of late.  This one was fine, but not great.

It tells the story of Natalia, a young woman from Berlin.  When she is travelling by train from Berlin to Prague she finds out the truth about her father which causes a rift with her mother. She also briefly meets a woman named Magdalena, whose family will reappear later in her life and play a notable role.

In the aftermath of the troubling train ride Natalia and her mother end up at a spa in Hungary. There she meets a journalist, Miklos and falls in love and marries him.  She moves to rural Hungary where she lives on a farm with Miklos and his mother.  When war breaks out in Europe she loses touch with Miklos, who she was supposed to meet in Prague, which is now occupied by the Nazis.

When Miklos doesn't show she sets herself up as a fortune teller. While in business in Prague, Natalia meets Anna, Magdalena's daughter. They become friends before Natalia is accused of spying and sent to a concentration camp. Eventually she is reunited with Anna and, together they must make sense of the past and move on to the future.

All Adults Here by Emma Straub

This is a novel of multigenerational family drama - I quite enjoyed the cast of quirky characters.  The book begins when the matriarch, Astrid, witnesses an automobile accident which brings back memories of a troubling event from when she was a young mother.  The novel explores how Astrid navigates this, as well as her relationship with her now adult children - Elliot, a married father of wild twin boys who sets impossibly high standards for himself in business, and is harbouring a secret that he fears will anger his mother; Porter, her daughter who has become pregnant by choice and is (not so successfully) trying to keep her own secrets; and Nicky, her youngest who now lives a bohemian life in Brooklyn and, when she has trouble at school, sends his daughter Cecilia to live with her grandmother.

In addition to these characters, the cast also includes Astrid's friend Birdie, who turns out to be more than a friend and Cecilia's transgendered new best friend.

The interactions between the characters, and the gradual revelation of the secrets they have been keeping, makes for an interesting read.

Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan

This new novel by the author of the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy is equally mindless and fun. The main character is Lucie - the daughter of an America born Chinese mother and a now deceased blue-blooded New York father. When Lucie travels to a wedding in Capri she meets George, the son of a flamboyant Asian mother. Sparks fly immediately, but Lucie works for years to suppress her feelings for George.

Several years later Lucie meets George again and still tries to deny her feelings for him - which involves her having to take a series of deceitful steps...but everything is humorous and, of course, there is a happy ending.

The Things We Cannot Say by Kelly Rimmer

Okay, yet another Holocaust novel - best to read other things in between all the Holocaust novels or it gets to be too much. But I did enjoy this one - it is another of the type where the chapters alternate between the past and the present.

In the present, Alice, is struggling to keep her marriage and family on track in the face of her son's severe autism and her perception that her husband does not pull his weight when it comes to their son. To add to her stress, her ailing grandmother begs her to travel to Poland though is incapable of explaining to Alice precisely what she wants her to do. Intrigued, and encouraged by her husband, Alice hires an English speaking guide and makes the trip.

In the past, Alina is a young girl living in a small town in Poland near what will become Auschwitz. Alina has always known she will marry her childhood best friend Tomasz. Unfortunately, Tomasz is away at medical school in Warsaw when the Nazis invade and Alina loses touch with him. She does, however, stay in touch with his family, including taking in his young sister.

In the alternating chapters we learn what happens to Alina, Tomasz and their families during the war.  And, at the same time Alice learns how these people in Poland relate to her.

Friends and Strangers by J. Courtney Sullivan

This is another novel that really revolves around the characters. Sam is a struggling student in a small university town in upstate New York who is looking to make some money to get through college. She accepts a job as a "mother's helper" for Elisabeth. Elisabeth, her husband and their infant son have moved from Brooklyn back to the town in which he was raised in order to raise their family. Elisabeth, a writer, is struggling with small town life and wastes extraordinary amounts of time following social media posts from her old neighbourhood.

Sam and Elisabeth hit it off immediately and develop a weird sort of friendship/co-dependency. Sam also befriends Elisabeth's elderly father-in-law, who takes up her cause regarding the mistreatment of food services employees at the college. This leads to unexpected and unfortunate results for Sam's relationship with the other employees.

Sam and Elisabeth also clash over Sam's much older boyfriend, Clive, who Elisabeth feels is untrustworthy.

The novel is an interesting exploration of the relationship between two women in vastly different circumstances and whether, ultimately, a relationship of this nature is healthy for either of them, and can survive.

The Marriage Game by Sara Desai

This is a light, easy to read and entertaining rom-com. Layla is the daughter of first generation immigrants from India. Her parents run a Michelin starred restaurant in San Francisco and, when Layla moves back to San Fran to start her own business, her parents allow her to use an office over the restaurant. However, they forget that they have also leased out this space to Sam, who refuses to break the lease. Sam is also the son of immigrants from India.

Layla's parents are very traditional and, unbeknownst to her, her father signs her up on a dating site which is meant to lead to arranged marriages. Though Sam also comes from a traditional family, his sister suffered abuse in an arranged marriage so he is very against them. As such he decides to accompany Layla on all of her dates to screen the men. Naturally this leads to some entertaining scenes - and sparks between Layla and Sam (this is a rom com after all).

While the end is predictable, the twists and turns along the way are fun.

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

This book is the opposite of light and fun, but it was a worthwhile read (though troubling - I would not recommend it if you are easily disturbed by descriptions of abusive relationships). This book is intended to be a bit of a modern-day Lolita, a book which figures in the narrative.

In the year 2000, 15 year old Vanessa becomes embroiled in an affair with her 42 year old English teacher, Jacob Strane. In 2017, in an era of allegations against powerful men, another former student accuses Strane of abuse. This student reaches out to Vanessa for support and she is terribly torn between sharing her story and defending her relationship. She still struggles with admitting the relationship was abusive, though it has ruined every subsequent relationship she has engaged in, and led her to years of therapy.

The chapters alternate between Vanessa's past and her future so the reader can see for itself the power Strane wields over Vanessa and how she struggles to come to terms with her past. I think this is a really important book for so tastefully exploring such a controversial topic, but it really is difficult to read.

The Paper Girl of Paris by Jordyn Taylor

Here we go again with another modern woman digging into her family's wartime past. In this case 16 year old Alice has inherited an apartment in Paris from her grandmother. Neither she nor her father even knew her grandmother had an apartment in Paris and, when they enter it, it is extremely opulent but suggests that it was abandoned in a hurry.

More importantly, Alice discovers pictures and letters which suggest her grandmother had a sister that no one knew about. So she sets out to figure out what happened - with the help of a cute Parisian boy, Paul, who she meets at a cafe.

In alternating chapters we go back into the past to see what led to the rift between Alice's grandmother and her sister, and how her grandmother ended up in the US.

This book is an easy and interesting enough read - could even be considered a YA novel.

The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict

This is a kind of interesting novel about Albert Einstein's first wife, Mitza. Mitza was a successful physicist in her own right whose legacy was completely overshadowed by her husband's success.

Mitza came from a small town in Eastern Europe to study physics at a Zurich University. She was the only woman in a group of six students who included Einstein. Over time Einstein's friendship turns into something more and the pair marries.

The book definitely does not portray Einstein in a positive light. He is moody and rude, and he steals Mitza's ideas and sells them as his own. I don't know how much of that is rooted in reality, but if it's true he really was not a nice person.

In addition to the relationship, this is an interesting portrayal of the difficulties faced by talented women (not only Mitza, but her roommates) in an entirely male dominated society. These women were well ahead of their time, and definitely struggled with being forced into more traditional roles.

Not a great book, but certainly a solid one and worth the read if the subject matter interests you.

Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan

This is another Sullivan novel which centres around the danger of keeping secrets - in this case for generations. The novel opens with Nora being awakened by a call telling her that her eldest son Patrick has died in a car crash, most likely caused by his own drunk driving. This leads to a phone call by Nora to her estranged sister, Theresa, who is a cloistered nun.

In 1957 Nora and Theresa immigrated to Boston from Ireland so that Nora could marry her long-time beau, who had previously immigrated there. In alternating chapters we learn of Nora and Theresa's immigrant experience - especially their lives in a boarding house run by Nora's fiancé's extended family - and Nora's now adult children.

John, an overachieving political hack, feels responsible for Patrick's death as the car accident followed his revealing troubling information to Patrick about something that happened in his past. Bridget is resentful because her mother does not want to recognize her long term girlfriend. And the youngest, Brian is still living with his mother due to a failed career as a professional baseball player. As the children gather for the funeral, and learn for the first time in their memories, about their aunt the nun, more and more secrets unravel and Nora is forced to face them.

The book is well written and the characters are both likeable and relatable. Though for the reader it is not that hard to figure out what the secrets are, I recommend this book as in the end it's how the people deal with the secrets that really matters.

Commencement by J. Courtney Sullivan

I liked the other novels I read by Sullivan, so decided to pick up this one too. As is her usual style, it is the characters rather than the plot that drives the book. In this case we meet four roommates at an elite girls' college which is intended to be a parody of Smith. Sally, Bree, April and Celia come from very different backgrounds and are forced together by circumstance. But somehow they make it work and their friendship carries beyond their four years at school, though imperfectly. The girls are now women and they are getting together for one of their weddings.

A bit of a subplot develops in the later chapters when April, the radical in the group, starts working for her idol who is a militant feminist. April gets involved in the fight against human trafficking with suspenseful results. This is a little atypical of Sullivan's work which tends to be less action driven.

I did enjoy this book as a study in how people from vastly different backgrounds and lifestyles can somehow, and with some work, mesh when they're thrown together.

Before I Let You Go by Kelly Rimmer

Lexie and Annie are sisters who were very close as children, but their lives were turned upside down when their father died and their mother dragged them to her childhood home which was essentially a religious cult. Things got even worse when she married Robert, the leader of the cult. Lexie was motivated to study hard in order to escape and has become a successful doctor, engaged to another doctor. Annie, unfortunately, turned to drugs.

Lexie had cut Annie out of her life due to the troubles caused by her addiction when she gets a call from Annie who desperately needs help. She is pregnant and in trouble. So Lexie and her fiancé race to her squalid trailer and discover she is in grave danger due to her elevated blood pressure. So they get her elite help, but she is also forced into inpatient rehab once the baby is born.

Lexie must figure out how to help her sister, and the baby, without being so sucked into the drama that her relationship and her job suffer. Interspersed with the narrative are diary entries written by Annie while she's in rehab. In these entries we learn what happened to her after Lexie left their childhood home, and what pushed her toward her addiction.

A powerful, and at times painful, story of two sisters and the devastating impact of childhood trauma.

The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré

This is a really interesting book coming out of Nigeria. Adunni is a 14 year old girl living in a tiny village who is forced by her father into an arranged marriage with a much older man who already has two wives. Adunni's mother, who is now deceased,  had always encouraged her to get her education as having a "louding" voice was the only way to succeed. But Adunni's father is desperate for the money that selling her will bring.

Adunni is mistreated by her husband and his first wife but taken under the wing of his kindly second wife. So when tragedy strikes the second wife, Adunni escapes to Lagos where she is essentially enslaved by a wealthy couple. But none of this destroys Adunni's spirit - with the help of a kindly cook and a neighbour Adunni betters her English and applies for secondary education.

In addition to the interesting story this novel offers insight into the subjugation of women and the poor in Nigeria as well as the great gulf between the rich and the poor. Although, by reference to Adunni's boss we see how even wealthy women are not immune to discrimination. Finally, the language of the book is great - it is all written in Adunni's personal style of English and has a musical ring to it. We also see the subtle changes in the language as Adunni's education advances.

The Forgotten Home Child by Genevieve Graham

This book deals with a piece of Canadian history which I knew nothing about so it was certainly educational in addition to interesting.

At 97 years old Winnifred knows she doesn't have much time left. She has already lost her husband and her daughter and many of her other friends. So when her great grandson asks questions about her family tree she decides it is at last time to share the secrets of her past with him and her granddaughter.

She tells them things she has kept secret for decades despite this breaking a promise she made to her best friend when they were just teenagers.

Winnifred was brought to Canada from England as a child - she and her group of friends had been street children as their families could not afford to keep them. They went from the streets to orphanages and were then sent to Canada to work on farms. Some of the children were treated like family members, but most were maltreated - overworked and underfed, often beaten or sexually assaulted.

Through Winnifred's narrative we learn about her childhood on the streets and in the orphanage, her crossing of the Atlantic, her work on a farm and later her marriage and motherhood. We also see the strong bonds she shared with the children she met on the streets as a child and how those carried through her life. Finally, we see the consequences she suffered as a result of the secrets she kept - even though she had the best intentions in keeping them. Finally, we see how what was intended to be a program for the benefit of children actually created great harm in many cases.

The Switch by Beth O'Leary

A fun and easy to read comedy about a grandmother and granddaughter who, when stuck in a rut, exchange lives and figure out how they want to live their lives.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

This was a really well-written book about twin sisters who were born in a small town in the southern US. They, like most of the other residents of the town, are light skinned and look down on darker skinned people. At age 16 the girls run away to the big city. They live together for a while, but eventually one passes for white to get a job and marry a white man who knows nothing of her past.

Ten years later this twin is living in Southern California with her husband and daughter while the other one has returned to her home town with a very dark daughter (after escaping an unhappy marriage). She lives with her mother who is slowly succumbing to dementia.

The narrative carries on for many years as the twins and their daughters move to different cities. Secrets are also revealed in unexpected ways and we see the consequences of trying to hide your past.

The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi

I quite enjoyed this book which is set in Jaipur and Simla, India. In the 1950s, as a 17 year old Lakshmi escapes an abusive marriage and eventually makes her way to Jaipur where she establishes herself as a henna artist for the wealthy women living in the city. Several years later her ex-husband shows up with a younger sister she never knew she had.

Lakshmi has ambitions, including building a home of her own. To supplement her henna business she is known for her natural potions which prevent or abort unwanted pregnancies. She carefully guards this secret side business from the women she works for, but is in fact often providing these services to their husbands (for their mistresses).

Lakshmi takes her sister under her wing and, with the help of her wealthy connections, gets her into school. But, her sister brings shame upon her by getting pregnant and refusing to abort so they take advantage of an opportunity in Simla. There she is able to capitalize on her naturopathic skills and her sister is able to return to school.

I really enjoyed this story about an independent woman succeeding on her own against all odds. There was also a lot of interesting side information about life in post-colonial England.

The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner

As a preliminary aside, it was a happy surprise to discover this book by a former colleague of mine who left law to follow different passions which eventually resulted in this interesting novel.

Just after World War II, an eclectic group of residents in the small village of Chawton band together in an effort to create a Jane Austen museum in a building where she was reputed to have written. The unlikely group are all Austen fans who are very dedicated to preserving her legacy - there is a labourer, a school teacher, a doctor, a lawyer, the suspected heir to the property which they wish to save and a visiting Hollywood movie star (as well as, eventually, an employee of a London auction house who she brings with her).

The story revolves around the political and familial struggles which ensue in their efforts to develop the museum as well as the romances between the various group members.

I definitely enjoyed this novel - it was particularly well written and researched.

The Flatshare by Beth O'Leary

Another rom-com, but this one has a different premise. Tiffy has broken up with her long time abusive boyfriend and is desperate to find affordable housing in London. So she answers an ad for a flatmate - but this is not your typical arrangement. It is a one bedroom, one bed place, but the current occupant, Leon, only works at night and lives with his girlfriend on the weekends so they are never intending to meet.

Their relationship develops through the exchange of notes left in the apartment. So they really become friends before they have actually met. When they meet in person the inevitable sparks fly.

There are interesting side stories about Tiffy's relationship with her abusive ex, Tiffy's job in book marketing and Leon's imprisoned brother.

A thoroughly fun read.

Loathe at First Sight

This is another rom-com but it has a more serious angle too. Melody is a public relations graduate who lands a job as a video game producer. Unfortunately the company she works for is run by an insufferable misogynistic CEO and staffed with almost entirely similarly sexist "bros".

When Tiffy jokingly suggests a new video game to target women - which is based on strippers trying to survive the apocalypse - she is tasked with bringing it to production. But she meets resistance at work from co-workers who are jealous of her and/or think she is in over her head. Even worse, when details of the game are leaked online she is targeted by violent haters who bombard her with online threats and insults to her gender, race and even intelligence.

Her main support comes from an unlikely place - her intern who also happens to be the CEO's nephew. And, of course, she has to fight her attraction to her employee. There are numerous other interesting characters - Melody's friends Jane and Candace, her Korean parents who only want to see her married, her nemesis at work, Asher, and her supportive co-worker and mentor, Kat.

The ending is not surprising but the twists and turns along the way are interesting.