Monday, August 28, 2017

Goodnight from London by Jennifer Robson

This wasn't a fantastic novel, but it held my attention and was an easy read.  I found the story a bit too  predictable.  It did appear to be, however, a well researched account of both life for a female journalist in the all male environment of the 1940s and living in London during the Blitz.

Ruby Sutton was working as a magazine writer in New York City in 1940 when her boss asked if she was willing to be seconded to a weekly in London.  Despite reservations about getting a passport (we learn the reasons much later though they are hinted at throughout) she agrees to go.  First, she has no family connections keeping her in New York, and second, she realizes it will be very beneficial from a professional point of view.

After a difficult crossing she is met at the train station by a friend of her editor's, Captain Bennett.  It is clear from this first meeting that he will become her love interest though there are years of back and forth.  It is also fairly clear from his behaviour that he works as a British spy, but it takes Ruby a rather long time to figure that out.

Ruby is welcomed at the magazine by her editor Kaz and a photographer, Mary.  The other members of the team are a little more wary of her.  When she loses everything in a bombing one night she moves from a temporary rooming house to the home of Bennett's godmother, Vanessa, who becomes a surrogate mother.  She is also warmly welcomed by Vanessa's daughters.

The book describes Ruby's difficulties establishing herself in the "man's world"; how she and others must cope with the Blitz; the repercussions when the truth of her past is revealed; her relationship with Bennett and eventually the end of the war.

If you're looking for a reasonably interesting diversion, the book is fine, but it's not great literature.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The Only Cafe by Linden MacIntyre

I really enjoyed this book, though I must confess I'm not sure I followed everything that happened in the story as it went back and forth in time and perspective.

Pierre Cormier is a refugee from Lebanon who did not speak about his past to either of his wives or the son of his first marriage, Cyril.  When he arrives in Canada he follows a priest to Cape Breton and there he graduates (late) from high school and marries his first wife.  He eventually becomes a high powered lawyer for a mining company in Toronto.  He leaves his first wife when Cyril is twelve and marries a woman many years his junior (only four years older than his son).

When Cyril is a teenager, Pierre becomes embroiled in a corporate scandal, is diagnosed with cancer and skulks off to his boat in Cape Breton planning to get out of the limelight for a while.  Instead his boat explodes and he disappears.  Five years later a bone fragment is found in the ocean and he is officially declared dead.

At the reading of the will Cyril, his mother and his father's second wife learn that instead of a funeral Pierre requested a roast at a bar he frequented anyone's knowledge, the Only Cafe.  He also sets out a guest list which includes Ari, an Israeli who he met at the bar who may or may not have known his father in Lebanon.  Curious Cyril visits the bar and meets Ari, hoping he will shed light on his father's past.  Instead he seems to fall into a bigger mystery.

Through Cyril's digging (both to learn about his father and as a journalism intern looking into terrorism) and alternating chapters from Pierre's perspective (as he writes about his past on the boat) we learn of how Pierre was involved in the civil war in Lebanon, including what role he played in the slaughter at Sabra and Shatila.  We are also given clues about how Ari may have been involved, though Ari denies it all (at least until the end, though even then it is never clear whether his "confessions" were truthful or smoke screens).  We also learn about Pierre's last days on the boat and are left wondering whether he is actually dead, if so, whether he took his own life and whether Ari somehow played a role.  Finally we learn a bit about the work scandal Pierre was involved in and why it hit him so hard given his past.

There are also a few interesting side characters - Aggie, Cyril's mother, Lois, Pierre's second wife, Cyril's colleagues, Suzanne and Nader, and an ex-soldier suffering from PTSD who befriends Pierre while he is out on his boat.

I recommend reading this book despite some of the confusion I still suffer from (which I think may be intentional on the author's part).  I was also concerned it would turn into a political piece given the author's journalism background, but I did not find the political spin significant enough to detract from the story-telling.

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Accusation by Bandi

This is a fascinating collection of short stories.  It was smuggled out of North Korea and is apparently the first fiction work from North Korea written by someone who is still living under the repressive regime.  The author, not surprisingly, used a pseudonym.

Each short story paints a horrifying picture of the oppression ordinary people in North Korea abide.  Their every move is under surveillance - both overt and covert.  Their present and futures are wholly dictated by the actions (or even perceived actions) of their ancestors.  They suffer from acute hunger. They are forced to suffer even further if any event involving the leader makes its way to their small villages - in one story they are held prisoner in a crowded train station so the tracks can be kept clear for the leader's arrival; in another they must join rallies and celebrations in his honour (even with a toddler who is terrified of the monstrous propaganda posters); and in yet another they are forced to gather flowers in muddy hills to ensure there are sufficient flowers to place on memorials following the death of one leader.  The stories span life under all three generations of this dictatorial regime.

The author also shows the tremendous lengths which the regime goes to in order to brainwash its citizens into believing their lives are superior to those in any other country.  Clearly if the author writes so tellingly, these efforts have failed with him and undoubtedly countless others.

While the writing is at times a little unusual, the book is worth reading just for its historical and political value.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

My Weekend Reads

I read three books over the long weekend, but would really only recommend the last one...

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

This is a fairly standard refugee story except that we never know what country the protagonists begin in and the London and California they land in are somewhat futuristic.  I suppose at its heart this is a love story which shows us the limits of what a relationship can endure.  Saeed and Nadia meet when they are both night students in their unnamed homeland.  Though she is covered from head to toe in black robes, in fact this is a bit of a disguise - intended to keep men away from her as she lives her life independent of her family (and thus estranged from them).  Saeed is really the more gentle and conservative one - he prays regularly and insists on "waiting until marriage".

When war takes its toll on the couple they pay smugglers to help them out of the country.  But all of the smuggling is described as a series of hidden doors which must be found and opened in order to land in a better life on the other side.  Through these doors Saeed and Nadia first land on an idyllic Greek island, but they are not able to stay there for long.

They exit another door and wake up as squatters in a home in London.  This is a futuristic imaginary London where illegal immigrants from all over the world have taken over huge swaths of London - living in mansions and fighting the government which tries to smoke the illegals out by turning off the water and electricity.  In London Saeed has trouble fitting in with the mostly Nigerian families living in the mansion and turns to religion and others from his homeland to try to fit in.  Nadia on the other hand becomes emboldened and politically active - carving a leadership role for herself amongst the Nigerian elder women.

Eventually the couple is forced to go through one further door and ends up in Marin county, California.  They live as squatters in a tent city which has sprouted up in the county.  Again Saeed is drawn further into his community while Nadia drifts further away.  It is in the United States where we see how the couple ultimately fares.

One further note - interspersed with the main story are these bizarre chapters which deal with unidentified people all over the world.  We just get a little snippet of their lives.  I read somewhere the author intends these to show how life goes on for everyone else.  I just found them distracting.

Over all the book was a little too weird for me.  I prefer refugee stories that make it easier to relate to the characters and their surroundings.

The People we Hate at the Wedding by Grant Ginder

This was another book where I just couldn't sympathize with (or really like) any of the characters.  Paul and Alice are siblings living in the US (Philadelphia and LA respectively).  They grew up in suburban Chicago with their mother, Donna, and their now deceased father who was Donna's second husband.  Their half-sister, Eloise, was fathered by Donna's first husband who was a wealthy Frenchman.  So Paul and Alice envy the more glamorous life that Eloise lived while with her father (and with his money).  And now Eloise is getting married in London and the clan must travel there for the festivities.

Alice is happy to go to the wedding despite the resentments she harbours over both Eloise's perceived better life and how Eloise treated her when she had a hard time several years earlier (in case you read the book I won't get into the details so as not to spoil it).  She also tries to convince her married boss who she's having an affair with to come with her.  Of course, he isn't interested.  But she has to spend more energy convincing Paul to come.  He hasn't spoken to his other since shortly after his father's death due to his perception that his mother cut his father out of her life much too abruptly.  In fact, his mother had her reasons which are eventually revealed to both the reader and Paul.  Paul brings his partner with him - and he may be the least likeable character in a cast of not very likeable folks.  He is mean to Paul and only agrees to come to London because he has plans to force Paul into a threesome with a friend in London.

Much angst and hilarity ensues when the family finally gets together.  I will admit there were a few very funny scenes, but they didn't really save the book for me.  We see all kinds of interactions between Eloise and her half siblings, Paul and his odious partner, Alice and her married lover (over the phone since he didn't come) and Donna and her ex-husband.  In the end many misunderstandings are resolved.  And if I have to pick characters I thought helped rather than hurt the relationships it would be Eloise and her fiancĂ©.

I wouldn't really waste my time on this book.

Miss You by Kate Eberlen

In contrast to the other two books, I did really enjoy this one.  The title leads one to believe it is about two people who meet and then miss each other emotionally.  In fact it is about two people who meet and then literally miss each other time and time again as their lives intersect without their knowledge.

Tess and Gus meet in passing when they are travelling in Italy as teenagers.  Tess is there with her best friend, Doll, before she intends to go to college in the fall.  Gus is there with his family as they try to recover from the tragic death of his older brother the previous Christmas.  They meet in a church and exchange glances, later on a bridge where Gus takes Tess and Doll's picture and then briefly when Gus is in line for gelato and Tess suggests he try another place instead.  They then return to England to lead their separate lives.

Gus head to medical school as planned where he befriends Nash who has coincidentally moved into the room in residence which was originally supposed to be Tess's.  Tess never makes it college because her mother has developed ovarian cancer and is dying quickly and Tess must take care of her 5 year old sister, Hope.

For sixteen years Gus and Tess lead their separate lives.  We follow them through love affairs, marriage (in Gus' case), broken engagements (in Tess's) and raising children (Gus, his own, and Tess, her sister).  On numerous occasions they just miss each other or even spot each other without knowing who the other is.  Finally 16 years later they are able to speak to each other again in Italy and they learn how often they missed each other.

I don't think it would help to describe in more detail the separate lives Gus and Tess lived - but they were shared with many flawed but extremely likeable characters - all of the bit players were fascinating.

I definitely recommend this one - not that it's deep literature or anything, but it's a really enjoyable read.