Monday, January 22, 2018

In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende

I was reminded of two things when I read this book:  1.  So much of what I read is entertaining but not particularly well written.  Allende, to me, is a real master.  Her words are just such a pleasure to read, whatever it is she is writing about (as an aside, kudos to the translator as this was not originally written in English).  2.  Though I seldom read them I never seem to agree with the reviews in the New York Times book review.  They happened to review this book this weekend and were not terribly flattering.  They didn't like either the story or the prose.  I guess it wasn't convoluted, pretentious and needlessly wordy enough for them - that seems to be their preferred style.

This book centres around one of the biggest Brooklyn snowstorms in living memory.  A sixty something professor, Richard Bowmaster, has to venture out in the snow to take his ailing cat to the vet.  On the way home he hits the car of Evelyn, a young undocumented immigrant from Guatemala. At the accident scene she is in shock and won't even talk to Richard, though she is frantic over the broken trunk.  He is confident his insurance will take care of the small matter and thrusts his card in her lap.

Later that evening Evelyn shows up on Richard's doorstep.  Having difficulty with her stuttering Spanish, he enlists the assistance of his colleague and tenant, Lucia Maraz.  Lucia is on a temporary work visa from Chile.  As the storm continues to rage, Richard and Lucia learn why Evelyn is so frantic about the seemingly minor car accident and resolve to help her.  Along the way they share their troubled pasts with each other and Richard and Lucia fall in love.  There are also strong political statements about Trump's treatment of hispanic immigrants, and particularly the undocumented ones.

I don't want to give away what the problem or the solution were so I won't say much more, but I highly recommend you read the book to find out.  Unless of course you always agree with NYT book reviews in which case you should probably give this one a pass.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Best Day Ever by Kaira Rouda

This is not my normal kind of book, but someone highly recommended it so I thought I would try it.  It wasn't high literature or anything like that, but it was gripping.  In fact, at the end I had a lot of trouble putting it down.

The entire book (except the epilogue) is written from the perspective of Paul who is taking his wife, Mia, to their country home for "the best day ever".  The problem is Paul is a egotistical, self absorbed psychopath and thus nothing he plans is at it seems.  It would be entirely disturbing if his perspective weren't also so funny - he has no idea how he actually presents to the world and, in particular, has not even contemplated that Mia may have plans of her own for this special day.

I don't want to give anything away, suffice it to say you will be dying to find out how the day actually unfolds for Paul!

Monday, January 15, 2018

Smile by Roddy Doyle

I'm really not sure I understood this book.  I thought I did, but when I got to the last few pages it turned all of my assumptions upside down and now I just don't know...

I obviously won't give away the twist so you can decide for yourselves if you understand the book...but the basic story is as follows.  Victor is a middle aged writer who finds himself alone for the first time in years and moves into a new apartment in Dublin.  Rather than sit and stare at the walls he forces himself to go to a local pub and make it his "regular".  One night while drinking alone he runs into Fitzpatrick - a man who apparently went to the Christian Brothers school with him, but who he cannot remember.

Running into Fitzpatrick brings back some painful memories for Victor and the book moves seamlessly back and forth from the present to Victor's time at school (when his father died and where he was sexually assaulted).  There are also flashbacks to his early career where he made a bit of a name for himself as a journalist and radio guest willing to tackle unpopular topics like birth control and abortion and to his marriage to Rachel who he describes as much more beautiful, sexy, personable and successful than he is.

In the present day Victor also tries to become "one of the guys" with a group at the pub and to exclude Fitzpatrick without much success.  There he also flirts with some of the middle aged women.

This is another story that deals with the dark side of the Catholic Church's power in Ireland.  And the personal stories are interesting.  It is just the last chapter that threw me off...

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Hum If You Don't Know the Words by Bianca Marais

I loved this first novel by Bianca Marais.  It was well written, easy to read, depicted complex but relatable characters and shone a light on a dark period in South Africa's history.

Robin Conrad is a 9 year old white girl living in 1970s Johannesburg with her parents.  Though her father works in the mines, he serves in a managerial capacity, receiving both the salary and the treatment commensurate with that position.  The family treats their maid, Mabel, in accordance with the standard of the day - she lives in a shack at the back of the property, must use her own utensils, must be available at all times (with no overtime), takes orders from a 9 year old and, if required to stay late at night to babysit, must sleep on the floor.

Robin is a tomboy who takes after her father and baffles her mother.  She chases after the neighbourhood boys trying to join their gang and works hard not to cry since her mother said crying makes her look ugly.

In the same country, but worlds away, Beauty lives in a rural village in the black Bantu homeland of Transkei.  She is an educated teacher struggling to raise her three children after the death of her husband in the mines.  Through Beauty we learn how different the mining experience is for black workers from the experience of Robin's father.  Beauty's daughter, Nomsa, has moved to Johannesburg to continue her schooling and Beauty receives an urgent letter from her brother saying Nomsa is in trouble and she must come.  Beauty leaves her two sons in the care of the villagers and makes the long and difficult trek to Soweto.

When Beauty arrives in Soweto high school children have begun a march protesting their treatment which quickly turns violent when the South African police and army arrives.  And Nomsa is nowhere to be found.

On the night of the Soweto Uprising, Robin's parents attend a mine event and are murdered by black workers.  There is no official evidence the killing was targeted but as Robin discovers more about how her father treated black people she wonders whether he was in fact sought out.

Robin is sent to live with her aunt, Edith, a single, childless flight attendant who is loving but has absolutely no idea how to care for a child.  Just when Edith hits rock bottom and there is a risk child services will take Robin away, a white activist meets Robin at the library and, knowing Beauty needs a job to stay in Johannesburg and look for Nomsa, sends Beauty to care for Robin,  At first Robin is very skeptical of the arrangement - she is horrified Beauty uses the same dishes and sleeps in the aunt's bed while her aunt is away.  But she eventually comes to realize Beauty is not dirty and does not carry germs.

Slowly Beauty and Robin bond and each helps the other deal with their grief.  The relationship between them, and Robin's developing awareness of the unfairness of apartheid as a result, makes for a wonderful read.  There are also many other engaging characters - Edith, despite her flaws, her gay friend Victor (who is also persecuted for being different), their Jewish neighbours, the Goldmans, and the alcoholic, "coloured" superintendent, King George.

Marais does an amazing job of expressing the world from the eyes of a 9 year old whose world is shattered and, with it, the assumptions she was raised on.  The chapters from Beauty's perspective are equally well written.  I highly recommend this book.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

The Ambassador's Daughter by Pam Jenoff

This was the last Jenoff title that I read and my least favourite.   However, it might just be because I read it last - her stories are very similar and I was less into this one.

This is a prequel of sorts to The Kommandant's Girl.  It takes place shortly after World War I and begins in Paris where we meat Margot, a young German woman who has accompanied her father, the titular ambassador, to the conference of world leaders attempting to draw up the terms of the new Europe.

Margot has been educated by her father, a single parent, but coddled by him too.  She spent the war in London and is reluctant to return to her fiancé in Berlin who is a wounded war veteran.  Instead she is excited by the new friends she has made - Krysia, a Polish pianist, and Georg, a German naval officer who is part of the German delegation.

Through these friendships Margot is introduced into a web of spying as well as various visions of the future of Germany.  Georg begins broken by the war, especially the loss of his brother, but hopeful for a peaceful resolution to Germany's historical conflicts.  When the terms of the armistice are negotiated, he becomes bitter and disillusioned, leaning toward the National Socialist party in the 1919 elections.

After webs of secrets about her father, Krysia, her fiancé, and Georg are revealed, Margot learns the best path will be to strike out on her own and find herself.

Both Krysia and Georg reappear in Jenoff's first novel which takes place during World War II.

While not the best of her books, I was still entertained and not sorry I read this one.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Winter Break Reading

I managed to get through several novels over the winter break - one of them was excellent, the rest were fine.  I'll start with the best.

The Heart's Invisible Furies by John Boyne

I really liked this book - it followed the life of Cyril Avery from his birth in 1945 to his old age.  As his adoptive parents told him at every opportunity, he was not a real Avery.  Rather he was born to an unwed teenaged mother and placed for adoption by a hunchbacked Redemptorist nun.  The story of Cyril's life really encapsulates the history of Ireland - in particular the significant influence of the Catholic church.

First, Cyril's mother is publicly humiliated by her local parish priest and banished from their town when her parents become aware of her pregnancy.  Of course, the father, who does give her a few pounds for her trouble, remains anonymous and suffers no consequences.  She hops a bus for Dublin where she befriends a young man and goes to live with him and his "roommate".  She is totally oblivious to the fact that they are lovers until this is brought to her attention in a startling and tragic way.  She manages to find a job serving tea at the House of Commons by pretending to be married (and with some luck as she is hired by a woman who had suffered similar circumstances).  As she planned to give the baby up for adoption, she returns to work after his birth and holds this job until retirement.

Cyril meanwhile grows up with very odd parents.  His adoptive mother is a novelist who abhors any commercial success; his adoptive father is a banker who goes to prison more than once for tax evasion.  While not cruel, they are rather neglectful and Cyril's childhood is lonely.  As a young boy he meets another young boy (the son of his father's lawyer) and develops a life-long crush on him.  At this point he realizes he is gay.

I don't want to give up too much but the novel follows Cyril's life from Dublin, to Amsterdam to New York and back to Dublin.  We see his relationship with his adoptive parents, his friend and her sister who he eventually marries (under societal pressure and without much success), the man with whom he has a healthy relationship and his birth mother who keeps popping up in his life without his knowledge of who she really is.  We also see the slowly changing norms in Ireland with respect to religion, unwed mothers and homosexuality.  My only criticism was the number of times people kept crossing each other's paths coincidentally - it made it seem like only about a dozen people lived in Ireland.  But, that didn't detract from my overall enjoyment of the book.

Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

This was also a very interesting book.  In alternating chapters it tells the story of three women caught up in World War II in very different ways.  Caroline Ferriday is a New York socialite who works at the French consulate.  When the war breaks out she struggles to continue to help the poor orphans in France and to integrate the influx of refugees into New York.  She has also fallen in love with a married French man and tries desperately to get him to stay in New York.  When he does not she constantly worries about him as his wife is Jewish and they get taken to camps.

Kasia Kuzmerick is a Polish teenager who gets deeply involved in the resistance movement and eventually ends up in Ravensbruck, the Nazi concentration camp for women.  She is riddled with guilt as she feels it is her fault that her sister, mother and boyfriend's sister have been arrested with her.

Herta Oberheuser is a struggling German doctor who desperately wants to be a surgeon but is stopped at every turn as the Nazis feel real German women belong at home.  That is until she applies to work at Ravensbruck and gets caught up in the horrific experiments being conducted on inmates there - including Kasia.  It is a testament to the writing that you are never sure how much Herta believes in what she is doing and how much she just needs to work to survive and support her mother.

The book follows the war time experiences of the women and ultimately how each of them fared during the war and dealt with the consequences of it.

A Nantucket Christmas by Nancy Thayer

I read this one in the span of one airplane ride.  It was typical Thayer Nantucket writing except that it took place in winter.  Nicole is an island newcomer and a second wife who must welcome her pregnant, adult step daughter, son-in-law and grandson to the family's Christmas celebration.  Her step daughter is adamantly opposed to her father's remarriage and unrealistically dreams of a reconciliation between her parents.  Angst and hilarity ensues when the family, including eventually the ex-wife, spend Christmas together.  The weirdest part of the book were certain chapters written from the perspective of a dog abandoned on the island by a summer family and discovered by Nicole's grandson.  Of course there is the expected happy ending.

Home Again by Kristin Hannah

Madelaine Hillyard is a very successful heart surgeon but has struggled more in her personal life.  She is the single mother of a teenager, Lina, who is going through a rebellious stage.  While Madelaine has the steadfast assistance of her priest friend, Francis DeMarco, his brother Angel (and Lina's father) rode out of town shortly after he found out Madelaine was pregnant.  Lina has not been told who her father is and desperately wishes to know.  Madelaine is able to keep it a secret until Angel, now a famous movie star, ends up back in town in need of a heart transplant.  The book deals with the bittersweet reunion between Angel, Madelaine and Francis as well as the introduction of Lina to her father.  While the ending is hopeful, there are some sad parts to get through first.

Three Wishes by Liane Moriarty

An easy read Australian book about triplets Lyn, Cat and Gemma.  It starts with a scene in a restaurant on their birthday which ends with Cat stabbing pregnant Gemma with a fork.  The book then goes back in time by several months to explain why that happened - with occasional forays even further back in time to the girls' childhood, teenage and earlier adult years.  While we learn about their parents' marriage and divorce, their grandparents and their own marriages, what the book is ultimately about is the relationship amongst the girls and how their personalities are shaped by this relationship.

I won't go into the story as it's not a deep novel or anything, but it is an entertaining enough read, especially on vacation.  There are certainly several humorous scenes.

The Things We Cherished and The Diplomat's Wife by Pam Jenoff

I have recently discovered Jenoff (actually, rediscovered as I had read The Kommandant's Girl some time ago) and when I was looking for something to read on vacation that didn't have a waiting list at the library I picked up these two.  They were both grabbed me enough that I read each of them in a day.

The Things we Cherished starts with two human rights lawyers, Charlotte and Jack, who are called upon to defend an accused Nazi war criminal.  Their client refuses to defend himself claiming only that proof of his innocence can be found in an old clock.  So Charlotte and Jack travel through Europe trying to get their hands on the clock.  Alternating chapters tell the history of the clock so we slowly piece together where it's been and why it's so important.  My only criticism of the book is the story of the clock was so complex that at times I was left confused - and because I was reading an e-book it was hard to look back for clarification.  But that was not enough to ruin the book for me.

The Diplomat's Wife is actually a sequel to The Kommandant's Girl, told from a different perspective.  This book starts with Marta who is a prisoner in a concentration camp being kept alive so she can be tortured to obtain information about the resistance movement.  We learn later that she worked in the resistance with Emma who was the main character in the other book.  Marta is liberated by an American soldier and sent to recuperate at a DP camp in Salzburg.  There she runs into the soldier again and they slowly fall in love.  However on the night that he must leave the camp Marta's good friend dies and a friendly nurse gives her the friend's visa to England.  She encourages Marta to use it both to escape and to personally bring the news of her friend's death to her beloved aunt who had sponsored her visa.

Before she makes it to England she gets waylaid in Paris where she again runs into the American soldier and they get engaged.  As the war has ended by then they make plans to meet up in a few weeks time in London.  So Marta travels to London where she stays with her friend's aunt and when her fiancé dies in a plane crash on the way to meet her she takes a job with and eventually marries a British diplomat.

The British foreign office discovers they have a double agent working for them and feeding confidential information to Russia and enlist Marta (who was working as a secretary) to help find the culprit as she has the necessary contacts from her days in the Polish underground.  She travels to Czechoslovakia to find the answers - with extremely surprising results.