Sunday, December 28, 2014

Winter Vacation Reads

The first three books I read were novels by other former Winnipeg residents.  They were recommended to me by the editor of the Jewish newspaper there who reviewed my book (and compared it to the first of those listed below in his review).

Ravenscraig by Sandi Krawchenko Altner

While I do see some similarities with my book (takes place in Winnipeg, deals with Jewish immigrants to the city, describes familiar locales, includes actual historical events...) there are also significant differences.  First and foremost this book takes place entirely in the more distant past (1895 to 1914) whereas mine takes place largely in the 1990s.  The descriptions of Winnipeg as a booming city for trade, transportation, and immigration were quite interesting as a result.

Secondly, my book was described as having mostly nice characters.  And I can see why when compared to Rupert Willows in this book.  He is a thoroughly unlikeable con artist who takes advantage of everyone around him (including his wife and children) for his own material and status gains.  Remarkably, despite this he does raise children who have strong values and social consciences.

Essentially the story revolves around Rupert, who bought Ravenscraig, a large though ugly mansion in Winnipeg's finest neighbourhood at the time in order to buy his way into Winnipeg society.  He eventually serves on city council, joins the Board of Trade and all the best social clubs and becomes a respected businessman.  At least until his tawdry past and conniving ways catch up with him.

The other main story revolves around Zev Zigman, a Russian Jew who sacrifices everything to bring his family to Winnipeg in order to escape anti-semitism and resultant pogroms.  The last family member to arrive is his niece Malka, who disguises herself as Maisie and comes to work as a maid at Ravenscraig (the anti-semitic Willows would never have hired a Jewish maid).  In this way the two stories and families intersect.

The penultimate chapters take place on the Titanic and Altner did a nice job of mixing her fictional characters with actual passengers on the ship.

Overall this was a nice historical fiction though frankly a little long for my taste.  But of interest to anyone who has any interest in Winnipeg in its glory days.

The Briss and The Shiva by Michael Tregebov

It's easiest to describe these two related books together as they are very similar in style and involve some of the same characters.  I preferred the second book although neither was really my style.  While some parts were humorous, in general I found the Winnipeg based Mordecai Richler/Woody Allen style satire somewhat grating.

The first book revolves around the Ostrove family.  Sammy and Anna are horrified when they discover their son, who they sent to Israel on a Birthright style trip to escape the scandal arising from his affair with a lesbian rabbi's wife, has become a human shield for the Palestinians and has fallen in love with and impregnated a Palestinian princess.  But Sammy gets into a physical fight one night at his club when he overhears another member badmouthing his daughter (using lurid details of her apparent sexual liaison with his son).  An assault charge and community shunning follow.  The narrative mostly consists of one or the other of Sammy or Anna falling into a funk, whining, complaining and fighting with their children.  All is resolved when the son and his Palestinian fiancé  arrive to spend time with the rest of the family at their Winnipeg Beach cottage (which sounds as awful as the Winnipeg Beach cottages I remember from my childhood).  The book closes with the whole community attending the baby's briss.

In The Shiva, the action actually begins with another briss.  An acquaintance of Sammy and Anna, Mooney, has just been released from the psychiatric ward following a bout with depression.  Mooney's brother, the grandfather of the baby in question, sits Mooney at the kids' table where he provokes a fight and earns his brother's wrath.  Despite this, their mother tries to bring them together and gets the brother to lend Mooney $50,000 which he invests in a short-selling scheme promoted by an Indian seer who predicts the sub-prime mortgage crisis.  Fighting, whining and complaining prevail when Mooney earns then loses millions on the scheme.  Some of Mooney's elderly friends are entertaining which was basically the book's only saving grace.

Family Life by Akhil Sharma

After three books set in Winnipeg, it was nice to move on to something completely different.  This book is short and really easy to read but very powerfully written.  In 1978 we meet the Mishra family in Delhi.  The whole story is told from the perspective of the younger brother Ajay who is 8 at the start.  He, his mother and his older brother Birju are awaiting tickets to America to be sent by their father who has immigrated ahead of them.

Eventually the tickets arrive and the family settles in Queens where they are amazed by simple luxuries like elevators, flushing toilets and automatic doors.  Birju excels in school and is accepted at the prestigious Bronx High School of Science.  But when the boys are spending the summer with an aunt in Virginia, Birju has an accident and is left severely brain damaged.  His parents struggle to take care of him with limited resources and a small negligence settlement.  His father turns to alcohol and his mother is basically seen as a goddess who can bring good fortune on Indian visitors - some who they know and some who they don't.  So Ajay is often left to fend for himself and to find his way in the strange world of an American middle school then high school.

A very powerful story of the devastation that 3 minutes can bring to the dreams of a whole family but how the family still sticks together to achieve what best they can in the circumstances.

Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight

This is a young adult novel which uses a lot of the gimmicks popular in such books, such as transcripts of text messages and Facebook posts.  But it was still a good story about bullying and a mystery with sufficient complexity that it kept me guessing until almost the end.

Kate, a single mother and partner in a law firm, is shocked one day when she receives a call from her daughter Amelia's private school saying Amelia has been suspended.  But she is more shocked when she gets there and finds out that Amelia has fallen from the school's roof and died.  A very perfunctory investigation by the police rules it a suicide, which does not sit well with Kate, especially when she gets an anonymous text stating Amelia didn't jump.  With the help of her boss, Kate convinces the police to reopen the investigation and that is when Amelia's last few days are reconstructed.

The narrative switches from Kate to Amelia's perspective (in flashback, of course) as we consider various suspects - the school bullies (members of the exclusive girls' group, the Magpies which had tapped Amelia), Amelia's best friend Sylvia, a texting friend who is only known as Ben, and members' of the school's staff and PTA.  There is also the side mystery of who Amelia's father was which gets revealed toward the end as well.

An easy and compelling read.

The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult

I only picked this up because I was in an airport and needed something to read and this book was on sale.  But I'm glad I got it - it was better than I expected.  The main complaint I had is that the end was so predictable I wondered why the characters were not smart enough to figure it out earlier (particularly Leo who is supposed to be an experienced Nazi hunter).

Sage Singer is a lonely baker who is still mourning the death of her mother three years before the  narrative starts (and blaming herself).  In her grief support group she befriends the elderly Josef Weber who eventually confesses that he is a former Nazi who has been hiding in plain sight as a pillar of the small New Hampshire community they live in.  He wants Amelia, a Jew by birth if not practice, to forgive him then help him kill himself.

Struggling with this request Sage reaches out to the US DOJ and meets Leo, a Nazi hunter.  He guides her in how to figure out if Josef is really who he says he is and therefore should be extradited and charged in Europe.

This story is interwoven with a story within a story about a vampire like monster who falls in love with a human girl.  We learn about mid-way through that this story was written by Sage's grandmother both before and during the Holocaust.  In fact, she was in part able to survive Auschwitz by recounting the story to a German administrator there who took an interest in hearing the end.  The early story moves between the perspectives of Sage and Leo to the story within a story.  But the middle is all from the perspective of Sage's grandmother as she recounts how she survived the horrors of war despite losing all of her family and friends.  There are also small sections written from Josef's perspective where we hear how he got involved in the Nazi machine.

As I said earlier, the end was rather predictable but the story was still well written and interesting.  I found the changing perspectives and time periods made it even more compelling.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Six Metres of Pavement by Farzana Doctor

This book was really a find.  It was published in 2011 but I had not heard of it until it made CBC's list of the top 100 Canadian books.  And I think it really deserved its place on the list.

The story centres on Ismail Boxwala, a Canadian of South Asian descent.  Twenty years before the novel begins, Ismail tragically, and accidentally, left his 18 month old daughter asleep in her car seat when he went to work.  He only remembers he did not drop her off at daycare when a policeman shows up at his office advising him that she has died.  Of course, following this he is investigated by the police (though never charged as it was found to be an accident), shunned by his neighbours and friends and eventually divorced as his marriage could not survive this.  He has also clearly not forgiven himself - living in the same home, his daughter's room a closed up shrine and drinking heavily.   He has never had a serious relationship since his divorce and is mostly a loner but for obligatory visits to his brother's family in the suburbs and the "merry pinters", the name he has given the women he hooks up with at his local bar.

Things change when two new people enter Ismail's life.  First, Celia, a widow who moves in with her daughter's family across the street from Ismail.  Celia is dealing with her own troubles - her husband died of a heart attack leaving her with virtually nothing but gambling debts and, three weeks later, her mother dies.  She is unhappy in her daughter's den, she gave her mother the spare bedroom and feels she deserves the same, but doesn't really have any choices.  She spends the early part of the book peering at Ismail through the curtains.  Eventually they meet and develop a really nice relationship despite their very different backgrounds (Celia is Portuguese) and thus the disapproval of both their families.

Around the same time Ismail also meets Fatima, a 20 year old Muslim girl who has been kicked out of her family home for being an openly gay activist.  Ismail clearly directs all his pent up fatherly feelings at this girl who is just a year younger than his daughter would have been.  Of course, because the Toronto South Asian community is small, Fatima's parents have heard about Ismail's past and use him as further reason to distance themselves from their daughter.  But with Celia's support, Ismail is able to help Fatima get back on track.

The main characters in this book are interesting and rather charming.  The relationship that develops among the unlikely companions is fascinating.  It really shows how sometimes you have to move outside your comfort zone to get the support you need to move ahead.  As an aside, I loved reading about local streets and TTC routes in Little Portugal.  I thoroughly recommend this book.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Ru by Kim Thuy

I'm not sure I understood all of this book, but I still enjoyed it.  It read a bit more like poetry than prose - the chapters were very short, some only a few lines and the language was tight though cryptic at times.  I think praise is owing to the translator (the original was French) - it could not have been easy to translate such unusual writing and retain the author's voice.

Ru is about a woman who, as a young girl, immigrated to Quebec from Vietnam - one of the boat people.  The book jumps around between her life as a pampered very young child, prior to troubles hitting Saigon, to the family's escape, with their valuables sewn into their clothes, teeth and plastic jewellery, on a crowded boat where everyone was seasick and feared pirates or other disasters, to her first year or so in Granby, Quebec to the present where she is the mother of two sons, one autistic.

We only get little snippets of each part of the characters life, but enough to feel how the family was destroyed and built itself up again in a new country.  At times I was a bit confused about what was happening and who all the characters were as the language was so condensed.  I could have used a bit more explanation of the family tree.  But all in all this did not take a long time to read and I was captivated by the language which kept me going even when I wasn't sure who I was reading about.  I don't strongly recommend this book, but wouldn't avoid it either.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Antagonist by Lynn Coady

This is the next book on my list of the top 100 Canadian novels, and it deserves to be there in my view.  The style of the book is unusual - it is entirely a series of e-mails written by Gordon Rankin (who calls himself Rank) to a university friend, Adam.  Despite this single perspective, Coady manages to sustain my interest.

Rank is a very large child who was adopted by two parents small in stature somewhere "on the coast".  Early on his father, who he describes as small and angry, casts him in the role of enforcer at his Icy Dreams ice cream franchise.  Because of his size he is even pigeon holed as a goon by local police when in fact he has pulled his father off one of the local punks.  Things go terribly wrong one night when he is enforcing order in the parking lot.  We find out fairly early on what has gone wrong and then we find out Rank's mother has died but we only learn the circumstances of her death toward the very end which was a great use of suspense by the author.

Rank has only confessed his past to Adam, a nerdy boy who he befriends in first year university.  We learn early on that he fled university under mysterious circumstances after his first term.  Again we do not learn the reason until much later.  He has drifted for much of the 20 intervening years though we get the sense he is now settled (and again his current situation is slowly revealed to us).  After 20 years he discovers Adam has written a book that has drawn largely on the description of Rank's early life which he had shared with him one drunken night.

Rank is angry about the book - he feels Adam both invaded his privacy and missed the point.  In other words he told secrets but he also lied.  So he tracks down Adam and sends him this book full of e-mails.  We never see a response from Adam though we are told he only replied to the first few - we never even know if he read the rest.  Through the e-mails Rank reveals his history, his relationship with his father (both past and present) and how he managed to cope with being cast as the enforcer which suited his size but not necessarily his personality.

Well written, the suspense is built in just the right way, the characters are believable and very flawed but still likeable.  I really enjoyed this book.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

What We All Long For by Dionne Brand

The CBC recently published its list of the top 100 Canadian novels of all time so I've started to work my way through ones on the list that appealed to me (and that I had not already read).  This is the first that came up on the library waiting list.

It's similar to The Vacationers in some ways as the point of view is constantly shifting - though tends to do so only as the chapters change rather than midstream.  Here the characters were all young people of colour in the city of Toronto.  All of them felt like misfits for various reasons and all of them were also dealing with family drama, yet this book was very different from The Vacationers in that the troubles here seemed more severe (and many were brought on by forces of history and social politics rather than mere human frailty).  I also loved how Toronto itself was almost another character in the book - there were so many familiar neighbourhoods I could easily visualize where a lot of the action was taking place.

The action takes place in the summer of 2002 during the World Cup.  We first meet Tuyen.  She is an aspiring artist who, against her family's wishes, lives in an apartment downtown where she barely gets by.  Though Tuyen and one of her brothers were born in Toronto, the rest of her family immigrated from Vietnam and suffered tragedy along the way.  Their oldest son, Quy, was lost as they made their way from the country by boat - he followed legs that he thought were those of his father but were not.  Quy is the only character whose life we follow outside of Toronto - as we hear what happened to him after he got on the wrong boat and how he eventually makes his way to Toronto.  We also see the terrible impact this event had on Tuyen's parents and, by extension, Tuyen and her Canadian born brother who must both "take the place of" the lost brother and act as their parents' interpreters of a strange world.

Tuyen is very much in love with her neighbour Carla.  Carla is the most steadily employed of the main characters - she works as a bicycle courier and a lot of the narrative from her perspective takes place as she bikes through Toronto's streets.  Carla's early life was also marred by tragedy.  She was the illegitimate daughter of an Italian woman who was disowned by her family when she became involved with a black man.  Carla spends much of her early years at her mother's side staring at her father's home.  He fathers another son with Carla's mother and when he is just a baby Carla's mother hands her the baby, asks her to look after him and walks off their balcony.  At the urging of the Italian family, and his wife who seems to be quite decent, Carla's father takes the children in.  But they never quite get it together and Carla's brother is in jail, again, begging for Carla to bail him out.  She does not have the means and has to face her father for help.

Tuyen and Carla are also friends with Oku, whose family are Jamaican immigrants who work hard and are trying to create a better life for him.  But he is disillusioned with university, has all but dropped out (though not told his father who he fears) and spends much time in Kensington market with the homeless and writing poetry.  He is also desperately in love with Jackie.  Jackie's parents are black Nova Scotians who came to Toronto in the 70s to get ahead - and really never have.  If the other three were not particularly well of as children, Jackie was really poor.  And trying to escape her past she will only date white men, much to Oku's dismay.

The book follows these characters and others in their lives over the course of a few weeks.  At the end their is a disturbing scene where their family's worlds collide.  We are left unsure of the outcome, but it doesn't really seem positive.  A bit of a difficult book to read, but worth it nonetheless.

The Vacationers by Emma Straub

This book was an easy read, but a very interesting insight into a family which is struggling to deal with all kinds of different problems as family members move into different life stages.  One of my favourite parts of this book was how the point of view shifted seamlessly among all of the characters such that you could see several points of view in the course of one chapter.  At times it would even take reading a few sentences before you realized the perspective had changed - but rather than being confusing it worked well.

The story centres around the Post family.  Franny and Jim are celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary as well as their daughter, Sylvia's, imminent departure for college with a family trip to Mallorca.  Joining them on the trip are their son Bobby, who is ten years older than Sylvia and has not lived in their Manhattan home since leaving for college in Florida.  Bobby brings along his live in girlfriend Carmen, who is 10 years older than Bobby and a personal trainer which Bobby's parents look down upon.  They, or at least Franny, says it is because she wants to be a grandmother and Carmen is too old, but even Franny admits deep down that she looks down on Carmen for her Cuban roots, he lack of education and her "profession".  For reasons that are never really fully explained the family is joined by Franny's best friend Charles and his husband Lawrence.  The other few characters that enter the story are Joan, Sylvia's very handsome Spanish tutor who ends up teaching her a lot more than language, Terry, a biker gang paediatrician who befriends Jim, an aging Spanish tennis pro who Sylvia had a crush on when she was young and Gemma, the owner of the house they have rented (though it is never really clear why she shows up at the end - that part was kind of unnecessary in my view).

Everybody at the house is harbouring secrets and the narrative really deals with how the secrets unravel and the impact it has on the various relationships.  Jim has recently "retired" from his job - in fact he was asked to leave after an unfortunate liaison with an intern not much older than his daughter.  His wife knows and is, not surprisingly, angry and deciding what to do.  Sylvia knows some of the story - but not everything.  And in any event is dealing with being dumped by a guy she was involved with for her best friend and the Facebook aftermath of a drunken high school graduation party where she hooked up with several boys and pictures were posted for all to see.  Bobby, who has not been at home, knows nothing of his parents' issues and is dealing with his own - spiralling debt and uncertainty about his future with Carmen.  Meanwhile Charles and Lawrence await news about whether they've been chosen by a birth mother to adopt her baby - and Charles harbours doubts about whether this is what he wants, particularly because he is hiding his own infidelity story.

The narrative is quick, clever, and realistic - I really felt like I got to know and like all the characters, despite their obvious flaws.  I really recommend this book.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

This book took a while to grow on me; though I did really enjoy it once I got into it.  I think the beginning could have been condensed quite a bit without losing much that was vital to the narrative.

Eileen Leary is born in 1941 in Queens.  She lives with her parents in a small apartment.  Both parents go through periods of drunkenness so she becomes their caretaker from a very early age.  She also dreams of a much better life - an education, a career and a house all her own.  She also wants to escape the Irish immigrant image she's grown up with.

At a young age she trains to be a nurse and meets Ed Leary and decides to marry him despite his Irish sounding name, because he is a research scientist and very different from the "blue collar" men in her life.  They first move into one floor of a triplex, but even though Eileen is finally in a house in the neighbourhood she coveted, she is not happy.  She pushes Ed to accept higher positions though he's very satisfied with his research and teaching position at a local community college.  Even when the Leary's buy the triplex from its owners who fall upon hard times and revert to being tenants, Eileen becomes disenchanted with the neighbourhood as new immigrant populations move in and dreams of a large home in a suburb filled with "people like her".

Eileen and Ed have one son, Connell, and he becomes the next focus of all of Eileen's ambitions.  Eventually Eileen convinces Ed that they should move to a "fixer upper" in the suburbs.  But around that time, Ed develops bizarre behaviours.  It becomes obvious to the reader, and eventually Eileen, that there is something wrong with his mental faculties.  When he is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's the book becomes far more interesting.  Sorry if I ruined the suspense for you, but I felt it worth explaining why you should stick with the book.

Eileen's lifetime caregiving skills kick into play and she becomes far more sympathetic as she struggles to care for Ed, all the while supporting her family and dealing with her crumbling home.  Here, her strength of character shines through though we still get ample exposure to her flaws as well as Connell's.  The real beauty of this story is seeing how a family deals (and at times, doesn't) with a devastating disease that slowly robs Ed of everything.

If you have the time to work through the early stages of the book, it's definitely worth it in the end.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Betrayers by David Besmozgis

I think this was my favourite Bezmozgis book yet.  His language is so tight yet descriptive that even though there is not a lot of action I was hooked right away.  I felt like I was in the Crimea with the characters even though it's a part of the world I know very little about.

The whole novel takes place over the course of 24 hours.  And even though the characters remember the past, Bezmozgis does not even make use of flashbacks which, personally, I think are sometimes overused.  The narrative centres on Baruch Kotler.  He was a Soviet era Jewish "refusenik" who eventually made his way to Israel after the fall of the Soviet Union.  He was famous for never giving up, never betraying others and having a wife who emigrated early in his imprisonment to Israel, but never left his side and was extremely vocal, keeping his cause in the news.

Once in Israel, Kotler becomes active in Israeli politics.  However, at this juncture he does not support the government's decision to forcibly evacuate several settlements.  Someone, who he thinks is an agent of the Prime Minister, threatens to reveal an affair he's been having if he does not retract his position.  He refuses to budge and the affair is revealed.

So the next day Baruch and his mistress, Leora, also a Russian immigrant but much younger and with few memories of the Soviet era, travel to the Crimea in an effort to escape detection.  Baruch has fond memories of one summer spent in Yalta as a boy.

By chance, Baruch encounters the Jewish KGB spy who betrayed him all those years ago.  And as the title suggests, this book addresses how Baruch handled this betrayal now that he is finally able to face it.  As well as the impact it has on his betrayal of his wife and children.

I strongly recommend this book.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

I don't remember who recommended this book - it may just have been the New York Times - but it wasn't really the type of book I normally read.  If I had known more about the story I probably would not have read it, but the story would be significantly worse if I had known it in advance so I will also not give away much of the plot.

Though the book is not my normal type, I was sucked into the narrative and stuck with it for the almost 600 pages it took to tell the story (though it could have been told in about half that number).  The style is formal, old fashioned English - that is part of what I did not really like about it.  The plot was in fact quite racy - and I'm sure would have been considered much more so in 1922 when the story is told.  So the formal language didn't quite fit - though I suppose that juxtaposition may have been part of the author's point.  Sort of - "see what's hidden behind all those upper crust manners".

Mrs. Wray and her daughter Frances have come upon hard times.  Both of Frances' brothers were killed in World War I and her father dies shortly after, leaving them with a crumbling though fashionable home and a burden of debts.  During the war we learn that Frances lived in town rather than the suburbs and dreamed of a very different life.  However she abandons all of that to take care of her mother and her home (much to her mother's shame they cannot afford servants and Frances must do the housework on her own though she tries to conceal this from her friends as best she can).  In order to supplement their income, the Wrays take in borders - though this is also a humiliation for Mrs. Wray so they refer to them as "paying guests".  Frances shudders the first time she must suffer the embarrassment of taking payment.

The borders are a young married couple, Mr. and Mrs. Barber.  They are from the "clerk class" and introduce music, laughter and "bordello like" decor into the home.  To Frances they also appear to be very unhappy.  She gets closer to the couple than her mother would like - and that is where the story gets mysterious.  As I said, I do not want to give anything away, suffice it to say she develops a very complicated (and somewhat unexpected) relationship with the couple, they get themselves into some trouble and the remaining hundreds of pages deal with how that trouble resolves itself.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Jason Priestly, a memoir

Okay, I know it's sort of stupid, but I couldn't help it.  Anyone who was hooked on Beverly Hills 90210 in the nineties knows what I mean...

The book was really one long string of name dropping, but it was fun to hear about how he shared an apartment with Brad Pitt before either of them had a regular job, or how at one time he could walk down the streets of Vancouver with Bradley Cooper and Zach Galifianakis and only Priestly was recognizable.  Or how he first met Sarah McLachlan when she was drinking his whiskey at his kitchen table one night.  The cat fighting among Shannen Doherty, Tori Spelling and Jennie Garth was also kind of fun.  Though Shannen Doherty does not come out sounding so great, nor does Tori Spelling, at least later in her career.

It was also a good lesson on how someone who peaks too early needs to stay on top of his life, and grounded, to avoid trouble with drugs, alcohol, the law, etc.  And how having goals such as learning to direct and produce can help keep a young actor focused - particularly when they have a supportive, successful mentor like Aaron Spelling.

This only took a few hours to read - it was like reading a long article in People magazine, but for fans of the show with a lazy Sunday afternoon to spare, it's not a bad read.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Vacation Reads

Since I was in India for two weeks, two out of three of the books I read were about India.  And they did actually answer a few of the questions I had along the way (such as why all the hotel rooms had a hose and nozzle next to the toilet), so that was an added benefit.

The Hero's Walk by Anita Rau Badami
This book takes place in Toturpuram, a small Indian town on the outskirts of Madras (now Chennai).  The story is told from the perspective of Sripathi, a middle aged Brahmin man whose family is house poor and has fallen on harder times.  He writes ads for a PR firm, but is a huge disappointment to his widowed mother who dreamed of his becoming a doctor.  The mother herself is a bitter woman, having been cheated upon by her late husband, a renowned lawyer whose only bequeath to his family was a great deal of death.

Sripathi is also disappointed by his job, his mother, his marriage which he now takes for granted, his single sister who has not found a match that satisfies their mother and his son who is a social activist with few job prospects.  However, he reserved most of his anger for his daughter who moved to the US for a job and fell in love with and married a non-Indian man and moved to Vancouver.  Because he was humiliated by having to break off the marriage he had arranged for her, he has not spoken to her since and has never met his granddaughter.

After tragedy strikes Sripathi suddenly becomes this granddaughter's legal guardian and must go fetch her and help introduce her to life in India.  It is fascinating to watch how he deals with his guilt and getting to know this strange (to him) child.

This is a very well written book about family drama, the Indian class system and its impact on a family who has fallen on harder times, and how a man deals with guilt imposed on him by society, his mother and his own actions.

I definitely recommend it.

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
This one is a classic which I had avoided because of its extreme length.  But since I was going to India I felt it was time to tackle it, and I'm so glad I did.  It's well worth the time investment.  But you have to be prepared - it's very depressing - it seems like in every other chapter someone dies or is mutilated or otherwise suffers.

The book takes place while Indira Ghandi is prime minister of India (though she is never mentioned by name) and deals with much of the political unrest brought about by her efforts to clean up the slums in Mumbai, impose population control and make other social changes.  And I will say, though things may have improved, many of the problems she tried to address seem to still exist.

Most of the narrative takes place over the course of one year, though through flashbacks we get the back story on all the major characters.  The first we meet is Maneck.  He is a college student raised in the mountains in North India who is sent to study refrigeration and air conditioning in Mumbai.  But his real dream is to return to his native town and help run his family's store.  He is terribly unhappy in the college hostel so is sent to be a paying lodger of his mother's childhood friend, Dina.  Dina had a promising future as a child of a successful doctor.  But her father dies when she is a teenager, her mother withdraws as a result and she lives under the thumb of her domineering older brother.  She escapes for a while in a happy marriage and when that ends tragically she stays in their apartment and tries to live independently by sewing.

But Dina's eyes begin to fail her so she seeks to make money through her paying border and by hiring two tailors to help her do piecework for a large company.  The two tailors are the other main characters in the book.  Ishvar and his nephew Om have come to Mumbai to make money so they can return to the town where they came from.  They also have a tragic back story tied to their low caste and the audacity of Ishvar's father to send him and his brother to become tailors when they were supposed to stick with leather work.  When they train to be tailors they are taken in by friendly Muslim neighbours and this allows the author to also explore religious tensions in India.

Along the way we also meet and follow several other interesting characters:  the legless beggar who rolls around on a platform, the Beggarmaster who protects him and others, the shifty hair collector that Ishvar and Om befriend in a slum, the monkey man who loses his mind when he loses his monkey, a lawyer turned proofreader, and the families of all the main characters.

This book really is fantastic and it was hard to forget once I put it down.  It deserves its reputation and then some. But make sure you have lots of time and are in the right frame of mind to read something so depressing.

Between Gods
This memoir by Alison Pick was the only non-Indian book I read.  While it was nice to read something different, and this was an easy read, I didn't love it.  It was a bit of a self indulgent delving into Pick's depression which she tied to her family hiding her Jewish roots from her and the difficulties she encounters in converting to Judaism though her father is Jewish and she feels Jewish already.

I did enjoy the descriptions of familiar Toronto neighbourhoods and synagogues.  And the Pick family history was an interesting one.  However, I got bored with the descriptions of encounters with Rabbis and Judaism classes - and I didn't feel Pick truly appreciated the support she got from her spouse who came across as a very caring man.

I wouldn't strongly recommend this though it isn't terrible and you might like it if you are interested in the Holocaust, Jewish conversion rules or families who hid their Judaism as a reaction to the Holocaust.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

My own novel - Emiliano's Discovery

If you enjoy my blog posts, please try my newly published novel, Emiliano's Discovery.  It is available in hardcover or paperback and as an e-book through or through all major online retailers such as Amazon, Chapters-Indigo, Barnes & Noble and iBooks.

A Walk Across the Sun by Corban Addison

I had just read and enjoyed Addison's newer book when I noticed his first novel was about India.  Since I'm headed there shortly, I had to read it - and it did not disappoint.  Though it did not paint India in the most positive light, given its focus on child exploitation, human trafficking and prostitution, it was not any more generous in its portrayal of Europe and the U.S. when it comes to these horrendous topics.

Ahalya Ghai, who is 17, and her 15 year old sister, Sita, are upper middle class Indian girls living in a seaside town near Chennai.  While home on winter break from the convent school they attend, they are suddenly orphaned when a tsunami kills their parents, grandmother and long time housekeeper.  Grief stricken and alone they try to make their way to the safety of the convent school but are instead abducted by human traffickers and introduced to a life of sexual violence in Mumbai.

At the same time, an American lawyer, Thomas, is dissatisfied with his life - his wife has left him following the sudden death of their infant daughter and the large firm he has devoted his life to is making him the scapegoat when a mistake is made and a large client threatens to sue.  By chance he gets wind of the crime of human trafficking when a young girl is kidnapped from a park he is visiting.  He thus picks up and moves to Mumbai to do a pro bono sabbatical with an NGO that prosecutes human traffickers. While there he also hopes to find closure with his wife and her traditional family.

Early in his assignment Thomas hears of the fate of Ahalya and Sita and dedicates his time to rescuing the pair. This leads him through the red light district in Mumbai, to the Russian mob in Paris, and ultimately back to the underworld in the U.S.

Like Addison's other book this is part crime novel, part political commentary and very much a story of human relationships and resilience.  I don't want to tell much more of the story for fear of spoiling it - and it's definitely worth the read.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Up at Butternut Lake by Mary McNear

I just picked this up blindly at the library when I was looking for something to fill a few rainy hours.  It was by no means great literature, but it was a perfect distraction.  Allie Becket is a widow whose husband was killed in Afghanistan.  Still struggling 2 years after his death, she sells her house in suburban Minneapolis, puts her belongings in storage and moves herself and her five year old son, Wyatt, to the cabin in the northern Minnesota woods which was built by her grandfather and where she spent many happy childhood summers.  She is hoping that freed from the constant reminders of her deceased husband, she and Wyatt will be able to move on.

When she gets there the cabin needs work and at first she is troubled by having a new neighbour, the handsome Walker Ford, but eventually she settles into town life as she reconnects with her friend Jax and makes a new friend in Caroline who owns the only diner in town.  She even gets a job working in a gallery.  And, of course, after initial resistance and overcoming both her fears and those of Walker, she learns to appreciate her neighbour.

Not the kind of book I'll remember for long, but it was well written and I enjoyed it while it lasted.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Garden of Burning Sand by Corban Addison

I really enjoyed this book that had so much packed into it - crime novel, love story, political commentary, family drama, and expose of health and human rights crises in southern Africa.

Zoe Fleming is a 29 year old American lawyer working in Zambia for an NGO devoted to combating child sexual assault.  She is carrying on the legacy of her mother who was a philanthropist who devoted her life to bettering the lives of those less fortunate in Africa until she was killed in a plane crash while on one of her African missions.  Zoe's father is a US senator who is a candidate for president.  Both Zoe's parents come from significant wealth and she is set to inherit a large sum of money held in trust for her until her 30th birthday.

One night a young girl with Down's Syndrome, Kuyeya, is raped and abandoned in a strange neighbourhood.  Her case is brought to the attention of Zoe's NGO and they must work to figure out who the girl is, what exactly happened to her and who perpetrated the crime.  They are not even sure of her age.  This  event sets in motion Zoe's quest - she delves into the Kuyeya's past, and that of her deceased mother to piece together both a suspect and a motive for the crime.  Her unlikely ally is a Zambian police officer, Joseph - this is where the love story comes into play.  Politics come into play when the suspect turns out to be the son of a wealthy former cabinet minister and a High Court judge - this leads to tampering with evidence and witnesses, threats against Zoe and the other members of the team and attempts to bribe judges.

The case also pits Zoe against her father - a pillar of his campaign is reducing US foreign aid which Zoe sees as so necessary when it becomes apparent how hard it is to obtain tests that would be routine in the US such as DNA testing to identify perpetrators or MRIs to determine the extent of injuries.

Everyone in the book has secrets - Kuyeya, her mother, the perpetrator and his parents, Joseph and Zoe herself.  Unravelling the secrets and following the criminal investigation and trial made this book a real page turner.  I couldn't wait to see how it all ended.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford

I didn't love this book and I'm really not sure why - the characters were very likeable, the topic was interesting and, like the author's other book, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, it was well written.  Perhaps the problem was I read it in close proximity to China Dolls which had a similar subject matter (Chinatown San Fran vs. Seattle, depression era, the entertainment industry...) and I preferred that book.

This book tells the story of William, a 12 year old boy growing up in a Catholic orphanage.  He has vague memories of the night five years previously when he last saw his mother but he doesn't really know what happened to her.  The nuns have indicated she is dead.  But one day he goes to the movies and sees an ad for an upcoming show and he is convinced one of the stars, Willow Frost, is his mother.  He and his blind friend Charlotte escape the orphanage in an effort to find her.  While he finds her, he does not receive positive confirmation it is his mother before the nuns find him and return him to the orphanage.

At this point the book goes back in time and we learn the story of William's mother when she was a teenager.  She was herself orphaned and became an unwed mother in very unfortunate circumstances.  The novel then goes back and forth in time until we find out the whole story of how William ended up in the orphanage.

There are awful scenes of child abuse (both Willow and Charlotte) and the treatment of unwed Chinese mothers in depression era Seattle is deplorable.  We also see how women are belittled by all the traditional men in their lives.

So the story was good and I did want to read it through to the end but somehow it just didn't jump out and grab me.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

China Dolls by Lisa See

I've read several of See's books and they all remind me a lot of Amy Tan's work.  This one deals with three young Asian girls who meet in San Francisco in 1938.  The city has attracted all sorts of entertainers and want to be entertainers in anticipation of a world's fair to be opening on Treasure Island.

Grace Lee is a 19 year old Chinese girl from Plain City, Ohio.  She runs away in the middle of the night to escape her abusive father who runs the local laundry.  Though Chinese, she has been raised solely amongst "Occidentals" and is very unfamiliar with Chinese customs.  She tries out for a dancing role in the world's fair but is turned down and sent to a nightclub opening just outside Chinatown called the Forbidden City.  Trying to find her way there she runs into Helen Fong, who on the surface appears to be a sheltered girl who has never left her family's compound.  She is accompanied to and from work at the Chinese Telephone Exchange by one of her seven brothers.  When she sees Grace looking for the Forbidden City she skips work to take her there and ends up auditioning as well.  While at auditions, the two girls meet the third main character, Ruby Tom.  She is the most brazen of the three girls, and the most experienced with men.  She is also Japanese, passing as Chinese, which becomes both a point of contention for Helen and her family who suffered under the Japanese invasion of China, and the world at large after the attacks on Pearl Harbour.

The book takes us through the lives of these three girls from when they meet, through the war years and the immediate post war era with a brief epilogue that takes place in 1988.  While the core of the story is the friendship and betrayals of these girls, as well as their emotional, financial and relationship ups and downs and the secrets they harbour, there is also a lot to be learned about the Chinese community in San Francisco at that time, in particular the city's entertainers who go on the "Chop Suey circuit", the interment of the Japanese, the horrible effect the war had on many young men and their families and even what it was like to be gay at the time.

Sometimes the book seemed to go on for a bit too long but in all I was drawn in and wanted to know what had happened.  I did guess some of the secrets but they were not too obvious so I was still anxious to know if I was right.  I definitely recommend this book if you like Amy Tan's work and books of that nature.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Children of the Jacaranda Tree by Sahar Delijani

I picked up this book at the grocery store because the beautiful jacaranda tree on the cover caught my eye - in this case you could judge the book by the cover as the story was also beautifully written.  The author herself was born in Iran's Evin prison while her mother was imprisoned there in 1983.  She tells a fictional, but personally based, story of several children born to imprisoned mothers - as well as the stories of their parents, grandparents and adult selves.  Fortunately there is a guide to the characters at the start of the book as I had to refer to it constantly to remind myself of the relationships between the various players.

The action starts in 1983 in Evin Prison.  Azar is in labour, blindfolded, in the back of a prison van en route to a hospital to give birth.  Despite cruel treatment she eventually gives birth in a hospital with the help of a sympathetic doctor who is unable to convince the prison guards to let her internal tearing heal in the hospital.  So she is given her baby, Neda, and returned to the prison.  The new baby draws together the ragtag group of women, many of whom did not previously get along as they take turns holding the baby and making her clothing from their discarded head coverings.  After several weeks the baby is torn from Azar's arms and sent to be raised by her parents.

We next meet Leila in 1987.  She is raising three children belonging to her two sisters who are imprisoned in Evin.  One, Omid, was left sitting at the kitchen table while his parents were arrested.  The younger two girls were both born days apart, in separate cells, in the prison.  Leila and her parents have put their whole lives on hold to raise these children even though Leila would rather follow her first love and emigrate.  It is interesting to read how these and other children we meet get very attached to their grandmothers and aunts and are very traumatized when their mothers return to claim them.  And these are the lucky ones whose parents return.

We later meet Amir who is imprisoned in Evin from 1983-1988.  While there his wife, who is free, gives birth to Sheida.  He is given two opportunities to see the baby - once shortly after her birth and once when she is three years old - before he is hung as part of a huge prison purge near the end of the Iran-Iraq war.  The second time he has fashioned a bracelet of date pits for his daughter which he sneaks into her clothes.  However, Sheida is not told her father's true story until she reaches adulthood and only then does she see the bracelet that for many months kept her father's hopes alive.

Most of the rest of the book takes place in the 2000s where we see how life has treated these children of prisoners.  Some have emigrated, others are active in the more current Iranian demonstrations, but all are scarred.  The stories are so interesting to read, and the strength of character of all the different generations, is clear.

I highly recommend this book.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O'Neill

I am hesitant to review this book as I finished it feeling maybe I didn't really understand it. For example, I just don't understand what symbolism lay behind the many strange cats that the first person narrator actually sees or maybe imagines (I was never really sure which though the narrator, Nouschka Tremblay was definitely one of the more sane characters). Her descriptive similes were clever but I couldn't figure out why they were there. I saw one review of the book which suggested these and other clever turns of phrase felt like the author trying too hard to show off her clever literary devices and I'd have to agree unless someone can explain a higher purpose.

O'Neill does tell an interesting story of a very dysfunctional family. Nineteen year old twins Nicolas and Nouschka are inseparable (they often still sleep in the same bed). It's not surprising since they were abandoned at birth by their teenaged mother. She had been seduced by their father a Québécois folk singer and her parents who were ashamed of this happening in their small town made her drop the babies off with their maternal grandparents. Their grandmother dies when they are five and they are left to be raised by their well meaning but bumbling grandfather Loulou. Their father, Etienne, uses them as cute children to boost his career and his separatist politics and they never really escape the shadow of this early fame even though they do not benefit from it since Etienne drinks away his money drifting from jail to halfway houses now.
Nicolas is obsessed with tracking down their mother and eventually does so but Nouschka is hurt by the tricky way in which he does so and tries to separate herself from her twin shortly after. She enrols in school to finish high school and marries a neighbour who is clearly schizophrenic and has also served time. Her efforts to escape are foiled when tragedy hits and she once again ends up in the arms of her family.
In all the story is interesting, paints a great picture of lower class French Canadians struggling in Montreal against the backdrop of separatism and of the harmful effects of early fame, teenaged pregnancy, petty crime and mental illness. But the literary devices are so obvious yet opaque that they actually detract from the narrative.

Monday, August 18, 2014

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

I loved this book.  It is a World War II book, but with a completely different angle.  The book flips back and forth from 1934 to 1944 - with a few chapters at the end years later (which was very satisfying I might add - to see what happened in the long term).  It also changes perspectives, from that of Marie-Laure, a blind girl living with her father in an apartment in Paris, to Werner, an orphaned boy in a small coal mining town in Germany.

Marie-Laure's father is the master of thousands of locks at Paris' Museum of Natural History.  When his daughter loses her sight, he builds her a scale model of their neighbourhood in Paris, complete with every building, storm drain, and lamp post, so that she may learn her way around.  She also learns her way around the Museum and becomes very comfortable amongst its artifacts.  When the Nazis are about to invade Paris, Marie-Laure's father is entrusted with what may be a very valuable diamond from the museum's collection and he is asked to leave the city and keep it safe.  It only might be the diamond as the original and three replicas are spread throughout France and no one is told which is the real one.  They flee to live with Marie-Laure's great uncle Etienne in Saint-Malo in Brittany.  Etienne has not left the house in years as he is suffering from PTSD from the first world war, which also killed Marie-Laure's grandfather.

Meanwhile, Werner is a young dreamer who wants nothing more to escape the fate of all the boys in his town - to work in the mines that killed his father as soon as he turns 15.  He finds an old radio and takes it apart so he can put it back together again.  When it works he and his sister pull in broadcasts from all over the continent including science lessons intended for children that fascinate him.  Werner becomes well known for his skills in repairing radios, eventually repairing one for the town's most senior Nazi official who helps him get placed at a Nazi training school for boys.  Werner survives the experience by immersing himself in the science lab where he must design radio tracking devices for the war effort.  However, he is emotionally scarred and disillusioned, especially when his weaker bunkmate is beaten by the brutal children.  At 16 he is forced to join the war effort to track partisans, eventually finding himself in Saint Melo where he crosses paths with Marie-Laure and discovers the source of the radio broadcasts he so enjoyed in childhood.

I don't want to give too much away but we learn the fates of both Werner and Marie-Laure, as well as her father, his sister, Etienne and many friends and colleagues they meet along the way.  The humanity which survives in such inhumane times is fascinating.

I highly recommend this book.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Zac & Mia by A.J. Betts

After slogging through the Goldfinch, I needed something easier to read, though not necessarily lighter.  This young adult novel was exactly the right remedy.

Zac and Mia are both 17 year old cancer patients, stuck for treatment on a an adult ward in Perth, Australia.  Outside the hospital they are total opposites - Zac is from a farm, happy in the outdoors and playing football.  Mia is a sociable, popular girl with cool friends and a boyfriend.  But in the hospital they come to depend on each other.

And once they get out they discover they need each other even more as they no longer feel normal or as if they belong.  They take turns pulling each other out of despair and we are left with a feeling of hope for their futures, even though, as Zac constantly points out, the odds are against them

I recommend this for a serious but easy read.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

This was apparently one of the big books of the year for book clubs.  I really don't know what all the fuss was about.  I found it boring - it was too long, the main character was not likeable (as hard as I tried to sympathize with his tragic childhood), and though there was supposedly a lot of drama I didn't really feel I cared how it ended one way or the other.

When Theo Decker is 13 his mother is killed in a tragic explosion in a museum that he survives.  Before he gets out of the building he holds the hand of a dying elderly man who gives him a signet ring and tells him about a painting.  Theo makes off with both the painting and the ring.  He eventually returns the ring to its owner, Hobie, who turns out to be one of the best people in his life.

Because Theo's father cannot be found immediately he is taken in by the wealthy family of a friend, the Barbours.  Though the family is cold and somewhat dysfunctional, they are good to Theo until his father shows up and whisks him away to Las Vegas.  He wastes his teenage years in Las Vegas, befriending a shady Russian kid and numbing himself with alcohol and drugs.  Eventually he returns to New York where he lives with Hobie, learning his craft of antique restoration.  All this time he holds on to the valuable painting he stole, certain he will eventually be found.

In New York he gets into more trouble, gets involved with more shady characters and reconnects with the Barbours only to discover tragedy has also befallen them.  The rest of the book deals with the convoluted way in which the painting finally makes its way into the hands of its rightful owners and how Theo's life continues to spiral out of control.

I really don't recommend this unless you feel you have to keep up with what's on the best seller lists just for the sake of doing so.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Delicious! by Ruth Reichl

I can't remember where I heard about this book, but I'm so glad I did.  It really was a "delicious" read.   This is the first novel for the former cookbook author, food critic and editor in chief of Gourmet magazine.  Not surprisingly, a lot of the narrative revolved around food and the descriptions of recipes, meals and food shops were fabulous.

The novel starts with Billie Breslin who has just dropped out of university and moved to New York from her native Santa Barbara to take a job as an administrative assistant for the editor of the food magazine, Delicious.  Her real dream is to make it through her trial period and become a food writer.  We learn early on that Billie has a talent for identifying obscure flavours, creating recipes and cooking, but for reasons that are slowly revealed she has given up on cooking.

At first Billie is lonely and her main interaction is through e-mails to her sister, Genie.  There is clearly a rift between the sisters now but the reason for that is also only revealed over time.  Eventually Genie befriends others at the magazine, especially the cook Diana and the eccentric travel writer, Sammy.  She also impresses a local cheese merchant, Sal, so much that he hires her to work on weekends - the first person outside his family who has been given that honour.  There she becomes an honorary member of his family and meets the "Complainer", a frequent shopper who she also gets to know better as the book progresses.

When Billie is finally feeling settled, the magazine is closed by its parent for financial reasons and everyone is let go, except Billie who is retained to continue to honour the magazine's guarantee to its readers.  It has always refunded the cost of ingredients to anyone who is dissatisfied with its recipes and wants to maintain the guarantee for the reputation of the magazine empire.  In this lonely job Billie befriends the lonely, Mrs. Cloverly whose complaints get more and more bizarre each day.  But more importantly she discovers a secret room in the magazine's mansion offices which contain letters written during World War II by a 12 year old girl in Ohio to the magazine's most famous chef at the time, James Beard.  Slowly Billie and Sammy piece together the history of this girl, with help from the clues left by the magazine's former librarian, and realize she may be alive so set on a quest to find her and see how her story ended.

This is well written, intriguing and a pleasure to read!

Monday, July 28, 2014

Landing Gear by Kate Pullinger

This is a really well written book based on an interesting historical event.  The book starts in 2010 during a period when European air travel is grounded due to ash being spewed from an Icelandic volcano.  Harriet lives in a London suburb near Heathrow - she is a radio newsreader who uses the opportunity to go back to her reporting routes and interview people stranded at Heathrow and those in nearby neighbourhoods who find the quiet eerie, being used to living under a heavily travelled flight path.  Harriet's husband, Michael, is in New York and unable to return home.  He is also unable to find a decent hotel room in New York so decides to take the train to Toronto to visit his first love.  Their son, Jack, left to his own devices finds himself getting in trouble with his friends by attending a wild party where the host dies under mysterious circumstances.

At the same time we also meet Yacub, a Pakistani migrant worker in Dubai who misses a transport home and is stuck without work or money in a labour camp, and Emily, a TV researcher in England who buries her father on the quiet day when no planes are flying overhead.  Her adoptive father's death prompts her to restart looking for her birth mother - something she had avoided out of respect for him.

The rest of the action takes place in 2012 when Yacub, trying to escape Pakistan yet again stows away in the landing gear of a London bound plane and falls on to Harriet's car in the parking lot of a supermarket.  Miraculously he survives and Harriet takes him in, at first hiding him from her family.  Emily witnesses the falling man and in fact records it from her apartment window.

Over time the connections between all five characters are revealed - and not in the way I initially expected which was an interesting twist.  I really liked all of the characters who are flawed but very human.  I also enjoyed the brief sections which took place in Toronto since the characters frequented familiar places like the Boulevard Cafe and Pho Hung.  I really recommend this book.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Girl You Left Behind by JoJo Moyes

Though some of the plot lines were rather far fetched, I still enjoyed this book.  It centres around a painting, "The Girl you Left Behind".  The painting was a portrait by the artist, Edouard Lefevre, of his wife Sophie.  It was painted just prior to World War I in Paris.  When war breaks out, Edouard is drafted and Sophie returns to her home town to help her sister, whose husband has also gone to war, run their deceased parents inn and tavern.  She also looks after her teenaged brother and her sister's small children.

The town has been occupied by the Germans who eventually commandeer the hotel, and Sophie, to prepare their nightly meals.  The new Kommandant takes a particular interest in the painting and its subject.  Desperate, she comes to trust him and offers up the painting, and herself, for a chance to see her husband one last time.  Branded a traitor by the townspeople she is ferried away in a German truck and we do not find out what happened to her until the end of the book.  Though she remains hopeful the Kommandant has arranged for her to see her husband, it seems more likely he is punishing her and sending her to a prison camp.

Almost a hundred years later Sophie's painting hangs in Liv Halston's home.  She is the widow of a young and promising architect who had purchased it for her for a pittance in Barcelona shortly before he died.  By chance she encounters Paul, a former police officer who now locates artwork stolen in wartime (primarily World War II) on behalf of the descendants of the original owners.  And of course, coincidentally, he has been hired by Lefevre's descendants to locate and recover "The Girl you Left Behind" now that they are aware it is very valuable.

Liv risks everything to hold on to the painting - both because of the emotional attachment to her husband and because the more she finds out about Sophie the more she relates to her.  Much of the book centres around Liv's efforts to prove she is the lawful owner of the painting and Paul's company's efforts (at first with his help and then without it) to show it belongs to the Lefevres.  As they unearth the history of the painting there are flashbacks to what happened to Sophie after she was loaded into that transport truck.  And people who knew her, or knew of her, tell their sides of the story.

The story comes to a very neat, though somewhat far fetched ending, but I still couldn't wait to find out more about Sophie's fate as the story unwound.  I really liked both Sophie and Liv, and can't help but think they would have liked each other, and was very drawn into their stories.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Summer at the lake by Erica James

This is one of the most entertaining books I've read in a long time - by no means classic literature, but a good intriguing read.  I think it was so enjoyable because the characters were flawed but really likeable.

The book starts when Floriana, a woman in her early thirties, gets a save the date card for her best friend Sebastian's wedding.  The problem is Floriana has not seen Seb in two years - ever since she accused his fiancee of cheating on him and then declared that she loved him as more than a friend.  He pulled away from her kiss and asked never to contact him again.  Then he makes the first move - sending this hand written note.

Floriana is so distracted by it that she steps out on the street without looking and is hit by a car that then leaves the scene.  The only witnesses to the scene are Adam, a property developer in his late 30s who has just purchased a house in the neighbourhood, and Esme, an eighty-two year old spinster who lives next door to the house Adam has just purchased.  At Esme's insistence, the two follow Floriana to the hospital to ensure she is okay which becomes just the start of a strong, though unlikely, friendship.

At first Adam, who is very serious and somewhat depressed due to a recent break up, does not know what to make of either Floriana, a free spirited, easy going tour guide in Oxford, or Esme, who he at first mistakenly believes to be just a bored busy body.  Over time he grows to respect both of them and they help him move on.  More importantly, when Sebastian insists Floriana attend his wedding at Lake Como Adam is invited as her plus one.  But the invitation is first proffered by Esme who anxious curious to return to Como where she went with her father as a teenager and fell in love for the first and only time with Marco, who as far as she knows followed his dream of becoming a priest.

Most of the interesting drama takes place in Como as Floriana must deal with her relationship with Sebastian, a verbal attack by his fiancee and her growing feelings for Adam, and all three search for Marco in the hopes that Esme will be able to see him one more time.  I don't want to give away the end as it is not necessarily predictable and it is worth the read to find out.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Sense & Sensibility by Joanna Trollope

This is supposed to be a modern take on Jane Austen's classic novel.  Unfortunately it's been at least 25 years since I read the original so I cannot remember it well enough to compare.  However, I found that Trollope certainly captured the old fashioned formal language well.  And though the characters used modern amenities - iPods, sports cars, YouTube, etc. they still felt rather old fashioned to me.

The story centres on Elinor Dashwood - a serious, reliable architecture student who, when her father dies suddenly, is the self appointed caregiver for her flighty mother, Belle, her even flightier sister, Marianne, and her rebellious teenaged sister, Margaret.

When the father dies, the women are cast out of their home by the "evil" wife of their father's son from a prior marriage.  This is despite the fact that the women have lived in this ancestral home for their whole lives.  They are taken in by other sympathetic relatives because it appears only Elinor is capable of finding practical employ.

Both Marianne and Elinor appear to fall in love with the wrong man and we see how differently they cope with it.  There are a cast of entertaining characters in their new home - in particular the always affable, businessman John and his overbearing but kindhearted mother-in-law, Mrs. Jennings.  Less likeable but equally entertaining are Lucy and Nancy, two gold digging god-daughters of Mrs. Jennings' late husband.  Lucy, in particular, gets in the way when she plans to marry Elinor's love interest, Edward.  Marianne instead falls for the handsome, but troublemaking John Willoughby though she is sought after by the reliable and caring Bill Brandon.

In the end all of the various threads are neatly woven together.  This is an entertaining, though not fantastic, read.  And much simpler than slogging through the original.

Monday, July 14, 2014

What I read on my vacation

All Fall Down by Jennifer Weiner
I always eagerly await Weiner's new releases but I have to say this time I was disappointed.  It seemed like she was trying too hard to be accepted as a "serious writer" and thus strayed from her lighter, and in my view more entertaining, stories.

In this book, Allison Weiss is a woman in her mid-thirties who finds herself addicted to pain killers.  She started them after dental surgery and an injury, but due to pressures with her job, her marriage and her daughter keeps renewing them through different doctors and eventually ordering them illegally over the internet.  She finds they allow her to face financial pressures (she is suddenly the primary breadwinner when she was supposed to be a stay at home mom but her husband's journalism job is not that lucrative and a book deal he thought he had fell through while her blogging about the life of a mother has taken off), her father's Alzheimer's diagnosis and taking care of her mother who has always been dependent on him, and a hyper sensitive pre-schooler.

For a long time she is able to hide her problem from those around her but eventually mixing painkillers with wine catches up with her and she is "caught" by her daughter's kindergarten teacher.  When she is confronted by her husband he checks her into a rehab centre and we watch how she struggles with that - trying to differentiate herself from the other women in the program.

Eventually she gets clean, though there are consequences...

While there were some witty passages, I felt Weiner's trademark humour and fun reading was not as prominent as I like in her books.  I read her books to escape and this one was just a bit too serious for my taste, but not deep enough to qualify as great literature.  Weiner does write well and I guess if I hadn't chosen this expecting something lighter, I would have enjoyed the book more.

Nantucket Sisters by Nancy Thayer
Thayer did not disappoint me in delivering a great beach read that I could escape into while on vacation.

Maggie Drew and Emma Hudson meet in Nantucket the summer they are 5 years old and become inseparable summer friends though Emma's parents would prefer she hang out with "her own kind" rather that the daughter of the local seamstress.  Despite parental interference the friendship holds through their teenage years and early twenties, even when Emma falls in love with Maggie's older brother, Ben.

However, their friendship is tested when both become enchanted by the smooth Wall Street trader, Cameron Chadwick.  Even though there are ups and downs, in the end each of the girls gets the guy she was meant to be with, and their young daughters start a friendship that looks like it will last as many years.

After this book all I read on vacation were very inexpensive romance e-books which all followed the same pattern - girl meets boy, fights falling for boy, falls for him anyway and after several miscommunications and misunderstandings they get together in the end and everyone lives happily ever after.  None were worth mentioning by name but they served the purpose of keeping me entertained without having to concentrate too much while I was on vacation.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Summer means beach reads!

Over the past couple of days I read two of my favourite "summertime" authors.  Both of them write easy to read, engaging, and intelligent novels.

The Matchmaker by Elin Hilderbrand
I have read most of Hilderbrand's Nantucket based books and I'd say this was one of her better ones.  The story centres on Dabney, a woman in her early 40s who is the face of Nantucket's Chamber of Commerce.  She is married to a Harvard economics professor, Box, who spends his weekdays in Boston and they have one daughter, Agnes, who lives in New York.  Dabney also has her quirks - she has a strange phobia which means she will not leave Nantucket unless her life depends on it (though she did do an undergraduate degree at Harvard) and she is a very successful matchmaker (she sees a pink, good, or green, bad, aura around all prospective couples).

Dabney's life is thrown into chaos when her high school sweetheart, and Agnes' biological father, Clendenin, returns to the island.  They have not been in contact with each other for over 25 years as Clen left the island to pursue his dream of becoming a foreign correspondent and Dabney's phobias did not allow her to follow him.  After he left she found out she was pregnant, and told him, but he did not return.  Box adopted Agnes and they did not tell her who her real father was until she was 16.

Agnes also returns to the island for the summer.  She is engaged to a much older, wealthy man who is very controlling.  She has also heard rumours he was abusive to his first wife and she is trying to figure out what to do.  Dabney of course saw the green aura around them and instead tries to push her toward a dental student who is working on Nantucket for the summer.

Clen's appearance makes Dabney physically ill - at least that what she thinks.  And we follow the characters for the course of a summer and fall to see how the various relationships resolve.

The One & Only by Emily Giffin
Shea is a 30 something woman who has never left her home town in Walker, Texas.  She is employed by the Walker University athletics department and has been obsessed with the Walker football team for her entire life.  She is dating a former Walker football player but is not terribly enthusiastic about him.  The story starts at the funeral of the mother of Shea's best friend Lucy.  Lucy's father also happens to be the Walker coach.  The funeral causes Shea to take stock of her life.

So the book follows her decision to pursue her dream of sports journalism, date Walker's only Heisman trophy winner and fall for Lucy's father.  There's not really much more to the story but the characters are generally likeable (except for the ones who are meant not to be) so I really wanted to find out what happened to all of them.  This is a well written, easy read for a lazy summer day.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Two Recent Books

Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole

This is a really quick and interesting read.  The books is narrated in the first person by a young medical student studying to be a psychiatrist, whose name we never learn.  He was born in Nigeria but has lived in the US for many years and returns for his first visit.  He left after some sort of personal tragedy which caused him to be estranged from his mother but we never really learn the details of that either.

It is fascinating to see Nigeria through the eyes of someone who once lived there comfortably but now filters all he sees through North American sensibilities.  He is now taken aback by the extent of the corruption (he sees internet fraudsters in action at local internet cafes and is approached for bribes for just about anything he does).  He is also disappointed by the terrible lack of displays at the local museum - he feels Nigerian history, culture and art is better documented in museums in London and elsewhere.  He also has trouble truly connecting with his former friends - though he does have a good relationship with his aunts and uncles.  There are also cultural advances that surprise and delight him - a woman reading literature on a bus, a sophisticated music school (unfortunately only accessible by the most wealthy Nigerians) and a well stocked book store.  The story is interspersed with photographs taken by the author which appropriately illustrate his impressions of the country.

At the end the narrator is still torn about whether he can return to the country permanently or not - and it is easy to understand his mixed feelings.

It's Kind of A Funny Story by Ned Vizzini

This is a sad but hopeful story about a depressed teenager who thinks of committing suicide one night but instead calls a suicide hotline and is encouraged to check himself into a local hospital's psychiatric ward.  The author clearly illustrates the devastating effects of too much pressure on a teenager in today's competitive environment.

Craig devoted himself to the sole purpose of getting accepted at a prestigious Manhattan high school - but as soon as he gets there his life begins to unravel.  He gets in with a group of less than desirable friends, develops a crush on his best friend's girlfriend and feels totally incapable of achieving the marks he wants.  His worry spirals and he becomes unable to sleep and eat.

In the hospital, faced with others who have had lifelong struggles or new ones like himself, he learns about himself and finds that art grounds him.  After five days he makes friends, changes his life goals,  settles into appropriate therapy and medication and we come away feeling he'll have to struggle with depression and anxiety forever but that he'll have the inner tools he needs to survive.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Fields of Exile by Nora Gold

This was a great novel by a relatively new author.  Gold tackles a difficult subject in a balanced way without coming across as preachy.

Judith is a Canadian woman who moved to Israel and has been working there in a series of jobs.  Though she is not financially successful, and her father thinks she is also not socially successful since she remains single, she is very committed to the country.  She feels it is her home - though she is left leaning and demonstrates against many government policies in the territories.  Judith returns to Canada to be with her dying father and on his death bed promises to complete her MSW in Canada.

She enrols in the fictional Dunhill University.  There she quickly makes friends with both fellow students and a professor, Suzy.  Suzy appoints her to be co-chair of the school's anti-oppression committee and Judith's life begins to unravel when they invite a keynote speaker who favours violence against Israeli and Jewish civilians to further the cause of the Palestinians.  Judith's boyfriend encourages her to keep her head down and finish her degree quickly.  And she tries too...but eventually is faced with one too many demonstration and takes a stand.  She quickly learns who her real friends are and it all comes to head at an Anti-Oppression Day rally which has dire consequences for her.

The pace of the book is good, the writing is fluid and the characters are all interesting (whether they are likeable or not).  I highly recommend this book for a fictional account of very real issues.

Monday, May 26, 2014

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

I suppose it's not surprising that a book about depression and suicide is a depressing read.  But, as usual, Toews writes well so I wanted to read to the end despite the topic.

The book is written from the perspective of Yoli, the younger sister of an unconventional Mennonite family from small town Manitoba.  As an adult, Yoli is trying desperately to keep her older sister, Elf, from killing herself after several unsuccessful suicide attempts.  Superficially, Elf appears to be the better adjusted - she is a world renowned pianist, involved in a stable relationship with a supportive man.  Yoli has been divorced twice and has one child from each of the men.  She is also a semi-successful writer of teen rodeo novels who is struggling to finish her first "serious" book.

The girls both struggled in the confines of their restrictive Mennonite community and were often condemned by the town elders.  Their father also suffered and eventually took his own life.  My favourite character was the girls' mother.  She is strong and adaptable despite losing her husband and many siblings and having to face her daughter's mental illness.

This is in the end a story of struggling through life, and mental illness, and trying to figure out how to move on after tragedy.  It's also a study in the influence of family relationships and history on one's own life.  It's equal parts uplifting and depressing, but in all I really enjoyed it.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Two very different books...

The last two books I read were polar opposites - but each enjoyable in its own way.

In Paradise by Peter Matthiesen

This novel is about Clements Olin, an American professor of Polish descent who specializes in Holocaust studies.  He joins a diverse group of people for a one week retreat at Auschwitz Birkenau which is intended to "bear witness".  Initially he is unsure what he can offer to the group, but he is interested in exploring the mysterious past of his mother who was left behind in Poland while he was taken by his father and aristocratic grandparents to a new life in America.

The group at Auschwitz, led by a Buddhist is diverse - it includes survivors, descendants of survivors, Germans and Poles who are trying to understand how their people could have been part of such horrors, Christians and Jews, young and old.  There is a great deal of tension between the various factions and even amongst them.  Some are very angry - others have made an uneasy peace with what has happened.

Professor Olin is haunted by ghosts - including one of his mother, grandmother and aunt - who his family refused to talk about, ostensibly to save his father from the pain of losing her.  But as Olin digs into it he discovers his grandparents and even his father may not have been so innocent and almost certainly were aware of the fate they left her to when they took him away.

Another interesting aspect of the book is the strange relationship Olin develops with a novice nun.  One gets the impression he is afraid to bond with a woman who can actually commit to him.

Though grave, the books is not depressing and moves at a manageable pace.  I quite enjoyed it.

Boston Cream by Howard Shrier

This is a crime novel which is a genre I rarely read but it's on my book club list as the author is coming to speak to us.  Part of a series, the protagonist is Jonah Geller, a somewhat bumbling Jewish private investigator who is a disappointment to his high achieving parents.  In this case he is asked by an Orthodox Jewish man to locate his son, a promising doctor in Boston, who has mysteriously disappeared.  Geller heads off to Boston with his attractive, lesbian partner, and they are on the case together until she is also abducted.  Geller then brings in the "big guns", a recovering contract killer, to help solve the mystery of the doctor and get his partner released.

The story is entertaining, and not entirely predictable as some mysteries are.  The characters are amusing and likeable.  The book won't stay with me for long but it was a pleasant enough way to pass away an afternoon.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Annabel by Kathleen Winter

This was a really interesting book and certainly deserving of its Giller nomination.  The story is about Wayne, an unusual baby born into a small community in Labrador.  Unusual because he is a hermaphrodite.  The only people who know Wayne has both male and female sex organs are his parents and a trusted neighbour, Thomasina.  Wayne's father and his doctors decide he should be raised as a boy so sew up his vagina and feed him with hormones.  His mother mourns the loss of her daughter, but goes along with her husband's decision.

Wayne's father tries hard to turn him into a typical Labrador boy - teaching him hunting, trapping and other masculine pursuits.  But Wayne is interested in synchronized swimming, drawing and is particularly fascinated by bridges.  His best friend is a young girl who dreams of being an opera singer.

On the day Wayne is born, Thomasina loses her husband and daughter Annabel to drowning.  When Wayne is young she calls him Annabel when they are alone.  He hears it as the nickname "Amble" and thinks nothing of it.  Though he is given daily medication, Wayne is not told the truth until he hits puberty and has to be given even stronger hormones to suppress his female side.

After high school Wayne feels trapped in Labrador and moves to St. John's where he also experiments with stopping his hormone treatments.  This has both good and terrible consequences for him when some local boys find out.  But, somewhat surprisingly, it also strengthens his relationship with his father who wishes to protect his daughter that he'd always treated as a son.

At times the descriptive passages got a bit overwhelming, though they certainly painted a clear picture of both small town life and St. John's.  I did skim some of them though I'm sure they're what attracted the Giller judges.  In all it was worth wading through them to see how the main story unfolded.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Fishing Fleet by Anne De Courcy

This non-fiction book, subtitled Husband Hunting in the Raj, describes the young English women who travelled to India to find husbands in the late 1800s and early 20th century.  The women were sent to have their pick of soldiers and government workers posted in India.  Some were returning to their birthplace having been sent back to England by their parents for their education, others were "old maids" in their early 20s who had fewer prospects at home.

I don't really recommend this book unless, like me, you are headed to India in the near future and wish to learn more about the country's history.  It reads like a text book and some of the lengthy descriptions of clothing and living quarters were quite tedious.  That being said, it was clearly well researched - in the acknowledgments the author credits dozens of memoirs and first hand accounts.  And some of the social commentary - on the gender discrimination as well as the racial and class discrimination were quite fascinating.  It was also interesting to read about sites that I will see (like the Taj Mahal) from the perspective of people who were seeing them over 100 years ago.

In sum, this was educational but felt a bit like studying for a history exam rather than leisure reading.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi

This was a really interesting book about family members and the secrets they keep.  At the start of the book, the father, Kweku dies of a heart attack in his home in Ghana while his young second wife is still asleep.  Kweku was estranged from his first wife and their four children but they gather in Ghana for his funeral.

The book delves into the history of the family in the US.  Kweku immigrated from Ghana to the US for medical school.  There he meets his first wife, Fola, an immigrant from Nigeria who gives up dreams of law school to raise their children.  Kweku came from an impoverished family and dedicated his life to providing for his family so they would not want as he did.  But because this was his sole purpose when he loses his job he cannot cope and abandons them.

Fola came from less humble beginnings but her father and maternal grandparents were murdered when she was a child.  She thus longs mostly for stability for herself and her children.   So when Kweku leaves and she cannot provide for all four children she sends her twins, Taiwo and Kehinde, to live with her half brother in Nigeria.  He is a drug dealer and pimp and the children suffer terribly there.  They withhold secrets from that time until the funeral and it causes great hardship for them as adults.

The oldest son, Olu, follows in his father's footsteps and becomes a doctor.  He is married but has trouble showing affection - again for reasons which are only revealed in Ghana.

Finally, the baby of the family, Sadie, who was closest to her mother until a recent falling out, suffers from body image issues and an eating disorder.  She only sees how she fits in when she meets her father's aunts for the first time.

The writing style is very interesting - it jumps from character to character and from past to present.  It is also very lyrical - almost poetic in style - which occasionally makes it a bit difficult to follow.  But all in all I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Bride of New France by Suzanne Desrochers

This is a fantastic first novel - a fictionalized account of the young orphan girls plucked from Paris's poorhouses in the 1600s and sent to be brides of soldiers and fur traders in New France.  Though fiction, it is clearly very well researched as it began as a Master's thesis about these filles du roi.

The book was recommended to me as a companion piece to Joseph Boyden's Orenda, and it really was interesting to read about this similar period in Canadian history from a different perspective.  The story is told from the perspective of Laure.  At six years old she was plucked from the arm's of her father, a street entertainer, and put into a poorhouse for orphan children while her parents were banished to the French countryside, never to be seen again.  She lived three pleasant years as a servant girl to an old woman who took a liking to her and taught her to embroider and read.  But when the woman died she was returned to the poorhouse, though because she was relatively educated she was placed with a group of girls who made lace for sale so were treated mildly better than other women.

At 17 Laure sends a note to the King complaining of the meagre rations in the poorhouse.  The letter is intercepted by the Superior of the poorhouse and as punishment Laure is banished to New France to become a bride for any poor settler who will have her.

We read about Laure's harrowing two month crossing on a sailing ship.  But on the ship we also see her strength of character and fiery spirit come to life when she is finally given a bit more freedom.  Once in New France she is sent beyond Quebec City to a small settlement where she is married off to a man who abandons her for most of the year to pursue his illegal trapping activities.  Laure's only real friend is a "savage", Deskaheh, who helps her survive her first winter.  However, relationships between French women and savage men are unheard of so she must keep the it secret.

Further tragedies strike Laure but in the end we are left with the feeling she is a survivor and will definitely go on the fulfil her duty to the French King in one way or another by helping to build his new colony.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Two Great Finds

It has been a while since I read two books in a row which I really enjoyed, but the following were both really good stories.  I read them very quickly because I was so intrigued by the plots.

Once We Were Brothers by Ronald H. Balson
This is a first time novel by a Chicago trial attorney.  At times this shows in that the plot and dialogue are very straightforward and lacking in the symbolism weaved in by more experienced writers.  But this does not at all take away from the quality of the story.

The story centres on Ben, a Holocaust survivor in his 80s who believes that a prominent Chicago citizen, Elliot Rosenzweig, is in fact Otto Piatek, a Polish boy who was taken in by Ben's family as a child only to turn against them when he becomes a Nazi officer.  Ben publicly accuses Elliot and is initially charged though Elliot has the charges dropped, ostensibly because he feels sorry for the old man.  But Ben does not want to let the matter drop as he wants Otto to pay for what he did to his family.  So a private detective friend, Liam, introduces him to a young lawyer, Catherine, so she can represent Ben in a claim to recover property stolen by Otto during the war.

Catherine tries to get Ben to stick to the facts about what was stolen and how he is sure Elliot and Otto are one and the same but over time gets caught up in Ben's narrative about his childhood, his friendship with Otto, his wife Hannah and what happened to his family during the war.  Due to pressure from Elliot's lawyers to drop the claim, she is forced to leave her law firm and handle the case on her own.  And together Ben, Liam and Catherine work to prove their case.  The book switches from the present day to Ben's memories.  Both parts are fascinating and I was anxious to get to the end to see if the case could be proven and, if so, how.  I won't give away the ending as the book is worth the read to find out for yourself.

All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu
This book also deals with the lingering impact of war but a far different one.  A young man, whose name we never learn, moves from Ethiopia to Uganda in the 1970s to try to attend university in Kampala.  Instead he is slowly drawn into the African revolution by the only friend he makes, Isaac.  Isaac gives the protagonist a series of names, the professor, Langston, Ali and eventually his own name, Isaac.  The book alternates chapters between telling the story of the two young men in Africa and the fake Isaac's new life in the American midwest where a young woman, Helen, is assigned to be his social worker to integrate him into society but eventually falls in love with him despite knowing much of what he tells her is not the truth.

The story of how a poor, naive boy gets caught up in someone else's revolution is not unusual but it is written so well that I couldn't wait to see how he eventually became the Isaac in America on false pretences.  I also loved how we never actually learned his name - such a stark reminder of how you can lose your identity just when you have set out to find it.

Powerfully written without being at all preachy, this is a great story of the impact of colonialism and its aftermath.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Valley of Amazement

It has been several years since I last read an Amy Tan novel.  But, if my memory serves me correctly, I enjoyed her earlier work more than this book.

The book tells the story of Violet, a half American, half Chinese girl living in Shanghai at the beginning of the twentieth century.  Her mother, Lulu or Lucia, is the madam at a high end courtesan house in the city.  She runs it with her best friend, a Chinese former courtesan named Golden Dove.  Violet is a pampered girl who spies on the courtesans and their customers in between private lessons from a series of tutors.  But she is not completely happy as she craves attention from her mother and wants to know more about the father that abandoned them when she was an infant.  She learns, to her chagrin, that he was a Chinese painter who would not break from family tradition to marry the American girl he fell in love with and impregnated.

At 14 Lulu is swindled into travelling to America to reclaim the infant son that was taken from her by his father and Violet is sold to another courtesan house.  Her mother is then told she died.  Much of the book deals with Violet's life as a courtesan, her relationship with her attendant and surrogate mother, Magic Gourd and the various men in her life, including the man she marries and has a child with.  This child is taken from her when she is 3 1/2 after her American "husband" dies of influenza.  Over the years she develops more sympathy for her mother when she sees what happened to her from a mother's perspective - and she seeks her out and gets her help locating her daughter.

The mother-daughter relationships in this book are very interesting, as are some of the relationships with men.  I also liked the surrogate family relationships with Golden Dove, Magic Gourd and a gay American man who married Violet's mother and gave her legitimacy and an American passport.

But I also felt Tan tried too hard to fit too many stories into the book.  For example, Violet's second disastrous marriage to an abusive man who sets her up in his family's home in the countryside was at best a distraction.  I had trouble getting through that part.

All in all it was a good book but not a great one.