Monday, January 25, 2016

Longbourn by Jo Baker

This book is Pride and Prejudice from the perspective of the servants at the family home, Longbourn.  Unfortunately it has been so many years since I read the original that I cannot confirm or deny the author's assertion that "where the two books overlap, the events of this novel are mapped directly onto Jane Austen's.  When a meal is served in Pride and Prejudice, it has been prepared in Longbourn.  When the Bennet girls enter a ball in Austen's novel, the leave the carriage waiting in this one."  That being said, this was still an extremely enjoyable read.

I must first give credit to Baker's writing style.  Based on her vocabulary, syntax and general structure, it would be easy to believe this was written in 1813 rather than 2013.  Though old fashioned, the language flows smoothly making this book easy to read, unlike some historical novels. It is written from the perspective of Sarah, a house maid in the Bennet home.  She came to the home as a young child after she was orphaned when the rest of her family died of typhus.  There she was taken under the wing of Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper/cook and her husband, the butler.  The only other staff member at the start of the book is Polly, another orphan who has recently come into the household.

The lives of the staff are thrown into disarray when Mr. Bennet abruptly agrees to hire James as a footman.  Sarah finds it odd that Mr. Bennet and Mr. Hill are so quick to accept the quiet though industrious young man.  As it is the time of the Napoleonic wars when most able bodied men are fighting, she is suspicious of his motives in coming to work for them.  Her suspicions are not helped by the fact that James is immediately attracted to her, but tries to bury that attraction by pointedly ignoring her.

As the book progresses we learn of James' history, and gain some insights into the horrors of the Napoleonic wars.  At the same time we see more of Mrs. Hill's history with Mr. Bennet as well as the nature of her marriage to Mr. Hill.  Throughout this we catch glimpses of the Bennet sisters', as seen from the eyes of their servants - and, in particular, we are witness to the vast disparity in their lives.

Like in Pride and Prejudice, the main couple eventually overcomes their personality differences and ends up together and the novel concludes with a "happily ever after" chapter that updates us on where the characters ended up within a couple of years of the main action.

Though not likely to become a historical masterpiece like the original, I think this book is a worthwhile read and it has prompted me to pick up Pride and Prejudice again.

Friday, January 15, 2016

The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende

As usual, I loved Allende's work.  Set in the United States, this book contains less magical realism than her South American set works, though some does make its way in toward the end of the book.  The best part of this novel were the wonderful, strong female characters.

Irina Bazili is a young care worker who takes a job in Lark House, an eccentric San Francisco nursing home.  There she meets Alma, an 80ish woman from a wealthy society family who has checked herself into the home despite the reservations of her family.  Most of the residents are aging hippies with little or no money of their own.  Alma hires Irina as her personal secretary and Irina sets out to learn about Alma's fascinating past.  She is particularly curious about weekly letters and gardenias that she receives.

Alma's grandson, Seth, takes an interest in Irina and together they piece together Alma's decades long hidden love affair with a Japanese gardener, Ichimei.  Alma and Ichimei were childhood friends when his father worked as her family's private gardener.  This was disrupted by the abrupt internment of all Japanese residents during World War II.  Through flashbacks we follow Ichimei's time in the internment camp as well as learn how Alma's parents were killed in the Holocaust after they had sent her abroad to live with her aunt and uncle.

We also learn about Alma's deep friendship and ultimate marriage to her cousin Nathaniel.  While I had guessed some of Nathaniel's secrets, others were surprising as they were revealed over time.  And we learn about Irina's own very horrific past as she slowly opens herself up to Seth's love.

There were several other interesting characters at Lark House.  I particularly liked Dr. Cathy, a relatively young resident who is in the home following a debilitating accident, but continues to practice medicine on the residents, and the flamboyant Lenny whose past interactions with Alma are eventually revealed and most interesting.  I was less enamoured with Alma's brother Samuel and found the couple of chapters about him a bit distracting.

This is not a book of tremendous action, but the examination of people, their pasts and their  relationships makes the book a very worthwhile read.

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Illegal by Lawrence Hill

After the success of The Book of Negroes I wondered whether Lawrence Hill's novel would disappoint.  So first I went to hear him speak about it - and was very intrigued by the excerpt he read so decided to take the chance.  And I was not disappointed at all.  Though not as powerful as the prior novel, this book is still very well written, interesting and, in particular, introduces some very intriguing characters.

The protagonist is Keita, a boy born on the fictional island of Zantoroland.  The poor island is known for its autocratic government and its marathon runners.  As a boy, Keita doesn't do well in school (unlike his sister Charity) so runs and dreams of getting to the Olympics one day.  However, after Charity heads to Harvard for university and a bloody coup which has tragic results for both his parents, Keita is not sure that will happen.  That is until he is taken under the wing of a rather corrupt coach who takes him out of the country to run.  He first fails in the Boston marathon, where he also fails to make contact with Charity, and then is taken to the fictional, Freedom State.

Freedom State, in contrast to Zantoroland, is one of the wealthiest nations on earth.  However, it has a very strict anti-refugee policy and apartheid like policies against its black residents (very broadly defined), many of whom live in the slum AfricTown on the outskirts of the capital.  In Freedom State Keita escapes his corrupt manager and moves underground to try to win races and use the winnings to figure out what has happened to his sister.

Though he encounters many corrupt people in Freedom State - like the "madam", Lulu DiStefano, who owns most of the shanty housing in AfricTown and the President himself, others are far more sympathetic and realize Keita could become a contributing member of the country if given the chance.

My favourite was the elderly Ivernia Beech.  She is fighting her own battles against her son who wants to declare her incompetent so he can gain control of her significant assets.  But Ivernia is far from incompetent and uses her wits not only to protect her freedom, but to assist Keita's efforts in obtaining his own.  I also liked John, the gifted young boy from AfricTown who attends the most prestigious school in the country on scholarship.  As part of a prize for an award winning essay, he is given the freedom to film a documentary about life in Freedom State, and particularly in AfricTown.  Under the guise of filming the documentary he gains access to many places including Lulu's brothel and the office of the Minister of Citizenship where he helps uncover some of the corruption in Freedom Town's government.  He is assisted by Viola Hill, a wheelchair bound journalist who is trying desperately to escape her past in AfricTown and her job covering only sporting events.  With John's help she gets her break unearthing and reporting on corruption.  Keita's final supporter is a female member of Freedom Town's police force who, while running a race against him, develops a romantic interest in him and manages to protect him from more zealous members of the police force.

At times the book reads like a mystery as we work with the characters to unravel the complex corruption scheme.  But it is also serves as a good hard look at how unfair a strict refugee policy can be - in some ways Hill was just lucky that worldwide refugee policies became good news right around when his book was published.  Whether you see the book only as a good thriller or as a larger political statement, you will love the characters and will want to keep reading to figure out how they eventually fare.