Saturday, March 24, 2018

Bear Town by Fredrik Backman

It's funny, when I read the back of this book I assumed it took place in Canada.  And I'm apparently not the only one who thought so.  It was only when I saw that it was in translation that I took a closer look and found out it was actually set in Sweden.  Apparently the quintessential Canadian story is also a Swedish one.

Bear Town is a small, dying town in the forests of Sweden.  They have cold dark winters, dwindling employment and not much to get excited about other than the local junior hockey team which looks like it may make its way to the finals in the capital.  This hasn't happened in years and everyone is hopeful a successful team will encourage the council to put a hockey school in the town, bringing with it much growth in all sectors.

What I really loved about this book is how many perspectives were covered - the star player, Kevin, and his uptight, distant, rich parents; the GM, Peter, his wife Kira, daughter Maya, and son Leo; the coach of the junior team, David; the older coach of the senior team, Sune; the other hockey players, Benji, Bobo, Amat, Lyt...; Maya's best friend, Ana; the team sponsors, President, and fans.  At the start it was a bit hard to keep them straight, but by the end I feel I knew them all.

On the day the junior team wins the semi-finals, Kevin commits a terrible act against Maya and the townspeople are all divided in how to approach it.  No one is left untouched and while some of the reactions are totally predictable, others surprised me.  I ended up particularly sensitive to Kevin's best friend, Benji, who was also hiding big secrets of his own.  I also liked the ending which gave a snapshot of where the kids ended up 10 years later.

I can't really say much more without getting into the complexities of the story in too much detail, but I definitely recommend this book.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

I wasn't sure about picking up this book since I often don't like the popular, talked about, choices.  I also couldn't get into the author's earlier bestseller.  But I enjoyed this one.  The main character is Anna - when we first meet her she is a pre-teen living in Depression era New York with her father, a union worker/gangster, mother, a former dancer with the Ziegfield Follies, and her severely disabled younger sister.

Anna loves spending time with her father, but as she ages and he gets deeper involved in the gangster world, he stops taking her on his "business meetings" and they grow apart.  But not before she meets Dexter Styles, a smooth talking, high ranking mobster who owns several nightclubs (among other things).

When Anna is a teenager her father disappears without a word, leaving Anna and the rest of her family to struggle along.  For Anna war becomes an opportunity when she gets a job that would normally be closed to women in the New York Naval Yards.  She first works in a factory measuring parts then takes on the unlikely job of diving to repair boats - a job she is very good at.

When she is working she meets Dexter Styles again and realizes he may hold the keys to her father's disappearance.  The remainder of the book deals with their relationship, her father's story and other dramatic turns in Anna's life.  I don't want to give any more away, because the book is worth a read to hear Anna's story.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Brother by David Chariandy

This was a really wonderful little book.  Set in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough it tells the story of brothers Michael and Francis, sons of immigrants from Trinidad.  They are raised by a single mother in low income housing crowded with immigrants primarily from the Caribbean, South Asia and Africa.  Their mother works several low paying jobs just to keep them housed and fed, and always encourages them not to squander their chance by ignoring their education.

Despite her best efforts, Francis, the older of the brothers while dreaming of a future in music is confronted with the prejudices and low expectations that face him because of the colour of his skin.  This results in bursts of anger which are exacerbated by a neighbourhood shooting and a police crackdown that follows it.

Some of the action takes place in this one hot summer.  The rest takes place ten years later when the younger brother's teenaged girlfriend returns to the suburb and tries to get him and his mother to confront the past.

The book is well written, engaging and tells a very moving and real story.  I highly recommend it.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Sing, Unburied Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Magical realism doesn't always work for me, but it did in this book.  It didn't bother me that some characters could see and hear the dead, others could discern illness by looking at a person and still others could hear what animals were thinking.  Despite all this, at its heart this was a story about real people.

Told from the perspective of different characters in different chapters (mostly Jojo and Leonie, but occasionally one of the dead, Richie) we learn of the difficult life of a poor black family living in coastal Mississippi.  Jojo is thirteen and is trying desperately to prove to his grandfather, who he idolizes, that he is a grown man now.  And in many ways he has had to be a man at an early age - his mother, Leonie, is a drug addict who seems to care about her children, but doesn't do much in the way of nurturing or even providing the necessities of life.  That's been taken care of by Jojo's grandparents, and now his grandmother is dying of cancer.  Jojo's father, Michael, who is white, has been in prison for several years, for drug dealing and his parents will have nothing to do with his black girlfriend or his half black children.  That leaves Jojo pretty much in charge of taking care of his toddler aged sister, Kayla.

When Michael is released from prison, Leonie takes the children on a road trip to pick him up.  Throughout the road trip we learn more about Leonie's past as well as her father's past, which included a stint in the same prison.  We also see the level of racial discrimination that still pervades life in Mississippi.  And it is on that trip that Jojo encounters his first dead person, Richie, a young boy who his grandfather knew in prison and who has figured prominently in his grandfather's stories. Richie pressures Jojo to question his grandfather about the end of their time together, which Jojo eventually does.  The end of this story provides a lot of insight into the grandfather's character.

The other dead person who plays a prominent role is Leonie's brother, Given, who was shot as a teenager.  Leonie can only see him when she is high which seems to be part of her motivation for taking the drugs.

There is not a great deal more action in the book, it is really more of a character study, but one well worth the read.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Breakdown: An Insider Account of the Rise and Fall of Heenan Blakie by Norman Bacal

This is a somewhat interesting book by the former manager of the law firm Heenan Blakie.  Bacal started when the firm was a small Montreal player and went on to open the Toronto office, grow the firm into a large national and international player, become co-managing partner and ultimately shepherd the firm through its demise.  At the same time he developed a name for himself as a tax expert in the film financing market, married his high school girlfriend, raised four children and became a black belt in karate before his knees gave out on him.

Of course, I think the audience for this book is limited - even as a former lawyer I skimmed over some of the detail about law firm politics and tax shelters.  And Bacal did seem to take pains to blame others for the firm's demise - he paid lip service to the role he played, but minimized mistakes he and his co- managing partner made.  Bacal was clearly a risk taker and some of his risks didn't pay off.

The book also got confusing - there were just too many players.  I know all of them played an important role in the firm, and in Bacal's life, so mentioning them was important.  I just couldn't keep them all straight at times.  And I read the e-book which made it harder to flip back and forth to remind myself who someone was.

That being said I do recommend this book as a cautionary tale for law firm managers, or frankly any managers, on how even a large, seemingly invincible, firm can fall apart at the seams.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Uncommon Type - Some Stories by Tom Hanks

I'll admit my expectations were not very high for this collection of stories by actor/director/producer, Tom Hanks.  After all, with his connections and star power I didn't think it would be hard for him to get published.  Was I ever pleasantly surprised!  Hanks can really write well.  Some stories were better than others, but I find that to be the case with any short story collection (even a master like Alice Munro has some winners and some losers if you ask me).  But overall this was a great read - and this coming from someone who really prefers novels to short stories.

Every story in the collection featured a typewriter - in some cases it was central to the story; in others it was just a passing reference.  I found that common thread really held the collection together in a unique way.  Hanks' characters were also unique without being too weird to be relatable.  I also liked how three of the stories featured 4 of the same characters so that you could explore them in more depth (though one of the three, "Alan Bean plus Four", when the characters build a space ship to circle the moon was probably my least favourite story).  I was also not a huge fan of "The Past is Important to Us" where Bert travels back in time to a day in 1939.  I guess science fiction is just not my genre.

But I loved "Christmas Eve 1953" about a World War II veteran, "Welcome to Mars" about a teenaged boy's discovery his father is having an affair, "A Month on Greene Street" about a single mother's move to a new neighbourhood, and "Go See Costas" about an illegal immigrant to New York City.  You can also appreciate Hanks' insights when he writes about a struggling actress in "Who's Who" and in the form of a script in "Stay with Us".

All in all, this is a great read from a multi-talented man.