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.

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