Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Five Novels I read on winter break

Two-Gun and Sun by June Hutton

This is another author I met at the Vancouver Jewish Book Festival and decided to read her book.  It was very well researched - there was a tremendous amount of detail about life in a small mining town in 1922 and the descriptions were very vivid.  However, I found that the flow made this book take longer to read than it should have - for some reason it just didn't really grab me.

The premise of the story is interesting - Lila, a young, single woman arrives in a frontier mining town to try to resurrect her dead uncle's newspaper.  In order to do so she must hire the only man capable of helping her revive the press - a Chinese printer from the forbidden settlement of Lousetown.  Although, or perhaps because, he is "forbidden" she is immediately captivated by him and spends so much time with him that rumours spread rapidly through the town.

The other man she spends time with is the titular character, Two-Gun Cohen, who was an actual gangster in that era.  He is crass, loud, lying, and cheating.  But he agrees to invest in Lila's newspaper and introduce her to Sun Yat-sen who is scheduled to come to town to drum up support for changes in China amongst the community's Chinese members.  Of course, because he is lying and cheating the introduction is never made and the money he invests is stolen.  Nonetheless, Lila makes a go of the first edition of the newspaper and then must decide whether to carry on or move on to the next adventure.

I did like Lila's character - she was bold, and open minded when faced with a town full of bigoted men.  She was not afraid to speak, or write, her mind - sometimes at her peril.  But despite this, as I said, at times the narrative dragged which made this not as an enjoyable read as it could have been.

The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks

June Hutton was in good company this vacation as I found Geraldine Brooks' latest novel was a bit draggy too.  I certainly didn't enjoy it as much as her earlier works.

This book is also a fictionalized account of historical figures (taking it on faith for now that the biblical figures she writes about did in fact exist).  In particular, she examines the life of King David - with all its warts.  It is written from the perspective of his prophet, Natan (frankly I can't remember if he's actually in the bible or a figment of Brooks' imagination).  It flips back and forth from the present when Natan is asked to write a definitive account of David's life to the past episodes in the King's life, beginning with the less than auspicious circumstances surrounding his birth.  When Natan was not present for the events he describes, he relies on fictionalized interviews with David's mother, brother and first wife.

Again this is an incredibly well researched book - which must have involved a great deal of bible study to portray the period so vividly.  And Brooks does not try at all to white wash David's behaviour - while she shows his strength in battle and his love for his family, he also shows his insatiable sexual appetite, his inappropriate relationships (with Yonatan and Batsheva) and his tremendous ego.

But, in the end, the life of David just didn't really interest me that much and I had trouble getting through the book (though I did persist).  Given how much I enjoyed past works, this one was a disappointment.

The Winter Stroll by Elin Hilderbrand

This is a sequel to Hilderbrand's Winter Street, which was released last winter.  It continues to delve into the lives of a Nantucket family - Kelley and his ex-wives Mitzi (who left him last Christmas for the man who had played Santa at their hotel for decades), Margaret (the mother of his three oldest children), and the kids (Patrick who is in jail now for insider trading, his wife Jennifer who dulls the pain with oxy and Ativan, Kevin and Isabelle who have just had a baby for whose christening the family is gathered, Ava who is having trouble choosing between two men and Bart who last Christmas was kidnapped in Afghanistan and is still missing).

This is classic Hilderbrand easy reading and was a perfect antidote to the first two books which were hard to get through.  Though it lacked the depth and the research, and is probably less well written, I could read it in a day and it was a good escape without too much effort.

The Golden Son by Shilpi Somaya Gowda

This is the second novel by the writer of The Lost Daughter.  It is a great study in family dynamic and the impact of breaking away from tradition.

Anil is the eldest son of a respected farming family in a small town in India.  His father and grandfather, significant landowners, served as the arbiter of community disputes and it is expected that Anil will follow in their footsteps - and marry a woman of his parents' choosing.  But Anil's father also plants the seed that he should become a doctor and that is the path Anil chooses.  It eventually takes him to a residency in a large hospital in Dallas where he must contend with the culture shock of both American competitiveness and Southern racism.

Anil experiments with dating a white, Southern woman which starts to unravel when her family meets him.  He also longs for a girl from home who is unacceptable both because she is lower class and because she has run away from a failed marriage.

The narrative wanders back and forth from Dallas to India (where we follow the disastrous marriage of Anil's first love) and we eventually see how Anil is able to pursue his dreams while satisfying those of his family.

The Hole in the Middle by Kate Hilton

Somebody recommended this to me because it is also the first novel written by a former lawyer.  It was classic "chick lit" but quite enjoyable and well written.

It delves into the life of Sophie - she is an almost 40 working mother of two boys who is barely holding everything together.  She is busy at work, and working for an idiot of a boss, she is also struggling to keep on top of her sons - one who is biting everyone at daycare and never manages to get there on time and the other who is in a school demanding her to volunteer and she just doesn't have the time.  She is also concerned about her husband's relationship with his female business partner.

The book also goes back in time to Sophie's life in college where she meets and falls in love with Will.  Will is back in town and she is struggling with how to deal with that since he broke her heart.  At the time she also met the elderly Lilian (Will's great aunt and their landlady).  She is a fantastic character who remains in Sophie's life - offering her both wisdom and humour.

Some of the descriptive passages at work made me cringe as they were so believable - how often did I sit in meetings chaired by morons who think they know everything and want to railroad everyone into implementing their stupid ideas!  Sophie's angst about her failing juggling act was also very relatable.  While Lilian tried to explain "the hole in the middle" of the title, I'm not really sure I did get that analogy.

There is also a twist at the end which caught me by surprise and I am rarely surprised so that was a bonus.

All in all an enjoyable, easy read and I hope Hilton decides to write another.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

His Whole Life by Elizabeth Hay

I can best describe this book as weird.  It's well written, and the characters are interesting, but not much happens even though it takes place over the span of about 5 years.  I shouldn't say not much happens - I guess friends are made, people (and dogs) die and there is a fair bit of travel between New York and Ontario cottage country.  But it all sort of plods along so I didn't feel like much was happening - and then all the sudden a couple of years would pass.

The story centres on Jim, who is about 11 at the start of the book.  He is traveling by car to the family's summer cottage in Ontario with his Canadian mother and American father.  During the car ride Jim wants to know the worst thing his parents ever did - both concoct a scenario but you know you will eventually discover much worse things.  And you also know something is weighing on Jim - and though he never really talks about it eventually you can piece together what happened.

The writing style is also weird though it works.  Perspective can change mid-paragraph - from Jim to his mother, to Lulu, his mother's childhood friend who re-enters her wife, much to the chagrin of Jim's father who already lost his second wife to another woman.

Though not much happens, clearly the point of the book is the relationships - between Jim and his mother, Jim's half brother, Blake, and their mother (who keeps him in the dark about a very important piece of his history which may account for why their connection is somewhat tenuous), between Jim's two parents (this is his mother's second marriage and his father's third - and they both seem to have bad luck in marriages), between Jim, his mother and Lulu, between Lulu and her brother Guy...and the list goes on.

The book also examines the lasting impact parental mistakes can have on their children, especially the rift that is created when a parent prefers (or is perceived to prefer) one child over another.  This happens with Lulu and her brother, Jim and Blake, and Jim's father and his mysterious brother who Jim's mother is dying to meet but only gets to at the very end of the book.  While Jim's mother also says her father clearly preferred her while her mother favoured her brother, she does not seem to continue to suffer as a result - maybe suggesting this balance helped.

I was intrigued enough to keep reading the book, but I wouldn't say I loved it.  I certainly preferred Hay's earlier works.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Only by Blood by Renate Krakauer

This book was a wonderful surprise!  I only heard about it because I met the author at a reception at the Vancouver Jewish Book Festival.  She gave me a synopsis and it sounded like my kind of book so I picked it up right away.  And I was not disappointed.  Krakauer writes clearly and compellingly and, though this is her first novel, her dialogue and descriptive passages are very well crafted.  Though in some way the style is similar, shifting perspectives and time periods in alternating chapters, there is no comparison to the last first novel I reviewed, Matrons and Madams.  Here I never lost track of who the characters were or what had happened in their lives.

The novel spans over sixty years.  It begins in Warsaw in 2005 with Mania who is caring for her aging mother Krystyna.  Mania was an only child who believed her father was killed in the war.  Her mother protected her from poverty in violence during the war and in the post-war communist era.  It then moves back in time to Roza, a woman who escapes a ghetto in Galicia with her infant daughter and leaves her for protection with another Polish woman, Irena.  The story moves back and forth between these two perspectives and when on her deathbed Krystyna asks Mania to "find them and make it right" we know that her search will somehow result in weaving the two stories together.  While I did guess fairly early on how that would happen, the book did not feel unduly predictable.

I was still enthralled by Mania's search for her mother's estranged sisters who she believes hold the key to "finding them".  I was also always interested in Roza and her husband and infant's struggle to survive during the war, immigration to Canada and desperate efforts to raise their daughter as a true Canadian, and while doing so completely shielding her from her traumatic past.  Many of the characters were very sympathetic as well.  Of course I could sympathize with Mania and Rosa, but I also loved their husbands, Witold and Marek, Krystyna's elderly uncle Feliks and Irena.  I felt less sympathy for Roza's daughter, Helen, who seemed somewhat ungrateful for her parents' sacrifices, but I suppose it was understandable given they never shared their stories with her.

While this was yet another Holocaust story, it was interesting to read about a lesser known ghetto and part of Poland (Galicia which was later given to Ukraine by the Soviets).  I obviously knew the suffering was widespread, but this was just a slightly different angle.  It also dealt with the suffering imposed on the Poles in this part of the world - I felt it was even handed in showing that suffering while also showing their complicity in the Nazi campaign against the Jews.

All in all, I really recommend this book - the author is to be commended for an impressive first novel.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Matrons and Madams by Sharon Johnston

Even before I read it, I sort of figured that Johnston found a publisher for her first novel because she's the Governor General's wife.  And after reading it, I'm certain that's the case.  Don't get me wrong, she has an interesting story to tell, but I didn't think the writing was fantastic (though not terrible either).

Apparently the story is loosely based on that of Johnston's grandmother (I think the Matron in the title, rather than the Madam).  The story spans about 20 years from just before World War I until the mid-thirties.  It focuses on two main characters.  Clara Durling, a nurse, is widowed when her husband dies in the war.  Shortly after that her son dies of influenza.  Needing a fresh start she and her daughter Ivy immigrate to Canada where, on the recommendation of a Canadian doctor she worked with during the war, Clara becomes the new superintendent of the Lethbridge Hospital.

Lily is a teacher born in Nova Scotia to an unwed mother who was shipped to Canada by her embarrassed relations.  Just before Lily's birth, her mother falls in love with and marries a pharmacist who Lily adores and who treats her as his own daughter.  After teacher's college Lily weds a miner and they immigrate to Lethbridge for his job.  Lily is unable to find a steady teaching job and when she falls upon hard times she decides to run a brothel to support herself and her young son, Teddy.

The book jacket talks about how the two women collaborate to establish the first venereal disease clinic in Alberta, and they do, but really this is a small part of the book.  Far more time is spent on the women and their love relationships as well as their relationship to each other.  I liked some of the male characters, especially the doctor, Barnaby, who was wounded in the war so must abandon surgery for psychiatry.  I found Lily's husband Ed a bit hard to take - he was an immature, hothead.  Johnston explains why in his back story but I still had a hard time sympathizing with him.

I probably had the most trouble with Clara.  Her character was not consistently developed in my view.  She could be compassionate at times (like when she befriends an unwed mother on the ship from England to Canada), but also rude and downright dictatorial in dealing not only with her employees, but also her daughter.  I get that she had a hard life but the sorrow did not seem to explain the inconsistent behaviour.  I also found her relationship with the mayor downright strange.

My other criticism of the writing is that there were too many coincidences.  I know Canada may have been small at the time, but I still found it far-fetched how often the paths of various characters crossed.  Along the same lines there were too many minor characters mentioned by name and then not developed sufficiently to be memorable so I often had to flip back to remind myself who was who.  Finally, I think Johnston tried to fit too many incidents into the book so that lots happened but not a lot of the events were described in depth.  I might have preferred fewer, well developed occurrences.

Despite the above criticisms, the book was an easy read and was fairly entertaining.  It also examined an era in Canadian history that I didn't know a lot about so that was interesting.  So I wouldn't say you should avoid this book.  But I would say Johnston is probably lucky to have connections which helped her get published.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Henna House by Nomi Eve

It's been a while since I read a book that I didn't want to put down - and this was finally one.  Henna House is a historical fiction about the Jewish community in Yemen.  It takes place primarily in the 1920s and 1930s though it ends with the mass immigration of the community to Israel shortly following its founding (Operation Magic Carpet) and there is an epilogue of sorts that tells you what happened to the major characters in later years.

The narrative is from the perspective of Adela Damari.  As a young girl her father is ill and her parents seek to find a fiancĂ© for her because, if she is orphaned before she is married, the law permits the government to take her from her mother and place her with a Muslim family.  Adela hopes to be engaged to her neighbour, Binyamin, but he is already promised to another girl.  She is almost engaged to several others, but bad fates befall them, making it hard to find her a mate.  She is saved when her uncle and cousin arrive and she is promised to her cousin, Asaf.

Adela is a free spirit who does not get along with her mother and her many brothers.  Though she is greatly loved by her father, her aunt and some of her sisters-in-law.  She and Asaf play at being husband and wife until, at about age 10, he and his father again leave town.  Her mother gets the marriage promise annulled for abandonment, but that means Adela must find another potential groom.  So she is promised as a second wife to a man old enough to be her grandfather.

When she is at her lowest, another cousin, Hani, enters her life.  Hani is like the sister she never had - they share secrets and adventures.  Hani and her mother also introduce Adela into the mysterious world of henna.  For years Adela is happy in the embrace of her new family and manages to evade an early marriage to an old man.  But, as predicted, her parents die when she is about 14 and her aunt and uncle must whisk her away to Aden, which at the time is under British rule, to again avoid the Orphan's Law.  I don't want to give away too much - though in some ways it is predictable - but in Aden Adela meets up with many from her past including Binyamin and Asaf.  And she is betrayed by those closest to her.

In the end the surviving members of Adela's family make the trek to Israel as part of the mass immigration from Yemen.  And her independent spirit helps her to forge a new life there.

The book is interesting not just for the story itself, but for the insight it gives into the lives of Yemeni Jews at the time.  The author clearly researched the life and the art of henna thoroughly and manages to be educational and very entertaining.  I strongly recommend this book and intend to seek out the author's previous work.