Wednesday, October 30, 2013

My Mother's Secret by J.L. Witterick

This book is regrettably far more simplistic than the reviews let on.  I think it would be a great introductory read for a young teenager to learn something about the Holocaust, and particular those who risked their lives to help others.  But, as an adult I found both the story and the character development lacking.

The book is written from four perspectives:  Helena, who together with her mother Franciszka, hid two Jewish families and a defecting German soldier in their small home in Poland following the German invasion in World War II; Bronek, a Jewish labourer whose family is hidden by Helena and Franciszka in the rafters of their pig sty; Mikolaj, a prominent Jewish doctor whose hidden along with his wife and son under the floor of Helena's kitchen and Vilheim, a German soldier who cannot bear the role and is hidden in a small crawl space in Helena's attic.

We learn a little about everyone's very normal life before the war, then a bit more about the atrocities they are faced with during the war.  Even Helena is not spared as her brother is killed taking food to Jewish partisans.  And then we see how the simple Polish women juggle the three groups who are hiding, each unaware of the other, and manage to provide them with food and shelter until liberation.

This is based on a true story, and does illustrate how goodness can prevail in the face of unspeakable evil.  And how help is found in the least likely places - each of the Jewish families was turned down by people they new far better than Franciszka but who were afraid to help.  I just wish it could have delved a little deeper into everyone's story.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Bone & Bread by Saleema Nawaz

This is a well written novel about complicated family dynamics and the lasting impact of childhood trauma and guilt.

Beena and Sadhana are teenagers living above their family bagel shop in Montreal.  There's is an unusual childhood from the start.  Their father a Sikh baker whose family has never approved of his career choice or his wife, a white woman who converted to Sikhism but is really more of a spiritualist.  Their father dies of a heart attack when they are too young to really remember him, and their mother of an unfortunate accident for which they blame themselves, when they are young teenagers.  The girls are left in the care of their formal, and rigid paternal uncle who is a bachelor that also has taken over running the bagel shop.

The girls rebel in different ways.  Beena becomes involved with one of the "bagel boys" who works at the shop but disappears after impregnating her at 15.  Sadhana begins a life long struggle with anorexia.  Beena is left to raise both her sister and her son, never really developing her own personality until she and her son move to Ottawa in an effort to live independently.  But the sister continue to rely on each other - travelling back and forth to care for each other and for Beena's son, Quinn.

The book begins in the present, when Sadhana has died of a heart attack at 32 and Beena and Quinn are both feeling responsible as when they'd last seen her they'd fought over Sadhana agreeing to help Quinn find his father, against Beena's wishes.  The book then moves back and forth until we learn the details of their childhoods and young adulthood.  We learn of the secrets they kept from each other, and other's in their lives.  And we see what happens when both Beena and Quinn finally agree to meet with his father.

There are numerous other interesting characters, including Beena and Sadhana's yoga teaching, mystical mother and her equally eccentric friends, Ravi, Quinn's father, who grows into an anti-immigrant political candidate, Libby, Sadhana's lover who Beena only learns of following her death and who carries her own guilty secrets surrounding the death, and Evan, Beena's young police officer boyfriend whose upbringing in a stable family on a Saskatchewan farm could not be more different than Beena's.  But what really kept me going was trying to find some resolution to the complicated relationships between the self-described unconventional family of Beena, Sadhana and Quinn.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Hungry Ghosts by Shyam Selvadurai

This is the first book I've read by Selvadurai but I will definitely look into others.  If this book is any indication, he has an engaging descriptive style and excels at developing complex and fascinating characters.  The novel centres on Shivan, a Canadian immigrant from Sri Lanka who is now in his early thirties.  He is preparing to return to his place of birth to visit his grandmother who is dying.  The book seamlessly moves from past to present as we learn about Shivan's difficult childhood, particularly after he and his sister and widowed mother move into his grandmother's home.  His Sinhalese mother had been estranged from her mother since marrying a Tamil man.  The grandmother takes the family in, but only at Shivan's expense.  His grandmother took a liking to him and begins grooming him to take over her property management business.  From a young age he is exposed to her crooked dealings, her main "thug" and her aggressive and stingy nature.

But we also eventually learn of the hard past that led to his grandmother's behaviour.  She is oddly both manipulative and cruel, and pathetic or even sympathetic.  Just after high school Shivan's family leaves the grandmother behind and immigrates to Canada.  There they are faced with poverty, his mother's depression and Shivan's coming to terms with being gay.  After a few years of struggling to fit in he returns for a short visit to Sri Lanka - which is lengthened when he falls in love with an old school friend.  But when his grandmother finds out he is gay she sets in motion a terrible sequence of events from which Shivan has yet to recover though he returns to Canada, sets out on his own to Vancouver, finds a respectable job and falls in love again.

We are left hoping, but not confident, that his next visit to his grandmother will bring the closure he needs to allow him to move on.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam

Out of respect and passion for Atwood, I've read all three of her speculative fiction trilogy despite this really not being my favoured genre.  And I was disappointed with this last book.  It seemed forced to me - like she really wanted to wrap up the story but didn't have a lot to say.  It lacked the imaginative language created in the other two books, particularly the religion and even hymns found in the The Year of the flood.  Maybe if I'd read the other two books more recently, I'd have had more interest in the characters as I'd have remembered their pasts more clearly.  But, even with the brief summaries of the other two books at the start of this one, I felt a bit lost and disconnected from the characters.

That being said, Atwood's writing is, as usual, intelligent and engaging.  But her political messages were less cleverly disguised than usual and, in my view, detracted from the story somewhat.  This book takes place months after the Waterless Flood pandemic that wiped out most of humanity.  We follow the lives of some survivors as well as a the Crakers, a quasi-human species engineered by the deceased Crake, as they gear up for battle, allied with pig like creatures, against some of the less desirable survivors.  And, despite, the downsides, I was drawn into the story and really did want to see how it ended.

So the master again wrote a great book, but I wouldn't say it's one of her best.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan

I think this was my favourite of Sullivan's novels.  The book alternates between five different stories and a lot of the fun is trying to figure out how they will fit together in the end.  I guessed some, but not others.

The book starts with Frances Gerety, who we first encounter in 1947.  Frances was an actual copywriter with the advertising firm, Ayer and Son.  She is credited with coining the slogan "A Diamond is Forever" which, in 1999, was named by Advertising Age magazine as the the slogan of the century.  This is a fictionalized account of her personal life spanning from 1947 until 1988 but is based upon factual accounts gathered through interviews, annual reports, advertising campaigns and personal correspondence.  Some of the other characters Frances interacts with at Ayer were also real people.  It appears that Ayer, on behalf of its client De Beers, is largely responsible for engagement rings becoming an everyday phenomenon.

The remainder of the stories deal with diamonds, engagements and marriage.  We next meet Evelyn and her husband Gerald in 1972.  They have been married for forty years and Evelyn is fretting over the failure of her son's marriage to a daughter in law she adores.  As Evelyn worries about her son she reveals some of her marital history, including her earlier marriage to Gerald's Harvard roommate, Nathaniel.  A key character is, of course, the diamond ring Gerald gives her when they become engaged - an expensive two diamond platinum ring that had belonged to his mother.

Jumping forward to 1987, we encounter James, an EMS with a temper who has never lived up to his potential.  Despite this he is married to his highschool sweetheart, Sheila and they have two little boys.  It is Christmas time and Sheila has just been mugged, losing everything in her possession, including the engagement ring with the tiny diamond that James had made for her when they got engaged.  The couple is struggling financially and much of James' time is spent figuring out how to replace that ring.

In 2003 we are introduced to Delphine.  She is a forty year old woman who abandoned a stable, if unexciting, marriage and business in Paris to follow a 23 year old violinist who proposes to her on a whim.  We learn about their happiness after it has occurred as she has now discovered the worst of him and is exacting revenge on his apartment and his life.  She does have good intentions of returning the engagement ring to his mother (as it had been hers) but loses it.  We only learn much later what happened to the ring, though Delphine never does.

Finally, in 2012 we meet Kate.  She is in a stable relationship with Dan and they have a 3 year old daughter but she is politically opposed to marriage and refuses to enter into it despite pressure from her mother and sister.  She is busy preparing for the upcoming marriage of her cousin Jeffrey to his long time partner Toby now that gay marriage has been legalized in New York.  One of her jobs is picking up the rings at the jeweller and bringing them to the wedding.  She finds the diamond rings tacky and obsesses over whether they might be blood diamonds.  When one goes missing she wonders if she was subconsciously responsible for its disappearance.

In the end all of the stories do tie together.  And along the way, Sullivan creates likeable and interesting characters that I came to care about.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam

I don't want to say too much about this book, because a lot of my enjoyment came from the surprises.  Set in Vietnam in the 60s and 70s, it centres on the life of Percival Chan, the headmaster of a respected English school in Saigon.  Ethnic Chinese, he moved to Vietnam as a young man to be reunited with his father following the death of his mother.  He discovers his father is indeed wealthy but addicted to opium and living under the control of his second wife, a Vietnamese woman, which prejudices Percival against Vietnamese women for much of his life.

With the Japanese occupation, Percival is no longer able to continue his father's rice import/export business so instead starts the school with the help of his neighbour and friend, Mak.  Percival is extremely naive, a gambler and a womanizer, but is forced to see some of reality when his son gets into trouble and must be rescued and eventually smuggled back to China.  Lonely following this (and his divorce) he turns to a Vietnamese/French woman, Jacqueline, and, despite his hesitations, falls in love with her and their son born shortly after.

But as civil war rages on in Saigon, and eventually the Americans evacuate, nothing comes easy to Percival, Jacqueline or their son.  The novel is a troubling story of war, desperation, betrayal and the difficulties of love.  It took a while to get into it, but by the end I had trouble putting it down.