Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Arrivals by Meg Mitchell Moore

While not action packed, this novel is an interesting study in the dynamics of grown up children and their parents.

Ginny and William are empty nesters living in Vermont when one summer all of their adult children, as well as their two young grandchildren descend upon them.

Their eldest, Lillian brings her three year old child and her newborn as she has just found out her husband cheated on her.  While Ginny and William are doting grandparents, and are concerned about their daughter even though she hasn't confided in them about her husband's infidelity, they do struggle with the noise and disorder that accompanies the visitors.  And they constantly try to find out how long they plan to stay - with no success.  For her part, Lillian is trying - she misses her husband though has not forgiven him and won't agree to see him (or to let him see the children).  Over the course of the book you see how she works through this - with the help of a childhood friend and the local priest.

Next Ginny and William's son, Stephen, and his pregnant wife Jane show up.  There is much tension between Ginny and Jane - Ginny can't quite relate to her daughter-in-law who is a workaholic and the primary breadwinner in the family.  Stephen is afraid to admit that it is he who will stay home with the baby.  The tension is exacerbated when Jane is ordered to stay in bed for the remainder of her pregnancy - not even able to return to her New York home.

Finally, the youngest daughter Rachel shows up - she has broken up with her live-in boyfriend, suffered a miscarriage and is floundering in her job.  Ginny clearly wants to mother her baby - she is better suited to caring for a woman who needs her than a woman like Jane.

The whole book just follows the lives of these people through the course of this one summer when they're all living on top of each other.

I recommend this if you like books heavy on family dynamics.

Dear Mrs. Bird by A.J. Pearce

This book sounded promising from the description, but I really couldn't get into it.  I think the main problem was I didn't like the protagonist - she seemed naive, reckless or maybe just plain stupid.

Set in London in 1940, Emmy Lake is working as a receptionist and volunteering as a a telephone operator for the Auxiliary Fire Service to do her bit for the war.  However, she dreams of being a war correspondent like the women who reported on the Spanish Civil War.  So when she sees an ad for a job with the London Evening Chronicle she jumps at the opportunity without fully investigating the nature of the work.  Rather that reporting, she is hired as a typist for a flailing women's magazine's elderly advice columnist.

Though she tries, Emmy becomes frustrated in the job almost immediately because Mrs. Bird refuses to respond to any letters containing "Unpleasantness", which she has defined rather broadly.  When Emmy is unable to convince her to reconsider, she takes the reckless path of answering "Unpleasant" letters herself, though forging Mrs. Bird's signature.  Not only does she reply privately but she sneaks a couple into the magazine, naively hoping Mrs. Bird will never find out.  What really happens is not particularly surprising...though there is an attempt to make Emmy's disciplinary meeting a comedy of errors.

There are several other side stories - Emmy's broken engagement and new relationship with her colleague's brother as well as her relationship with her roommate who strongly advises Emmy against answering these letters.  Emmy's bad judgment doesn't stop her from lecturing her roommate's fiancĂ© about the unnecessary risks she thinks he's taking as a firefighter.  At least his risks save people from burning buildings!

All in all I wouldn't really recommend this one.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Us Against You by Fredrik Backman

This is a sequel to the popular book, Beartown, and as with that book there is not much I can include in this review as I don't want to give too much away.

The action picks up shortly after the events in Beartown (with the exception of the epilogue of that book which gave us insight several years into the future).  As a result of the key player of the Beartown hockey team having been accused of rape, the team is in danger of falling apart as most of the key players have moved to play for the rival Hed team.  The Beartown general manager, Peter, is left to try to save the team.

He is given some unlikely help (though it's hard to even tell if it's help at all that he's receiving) from a local city councillor who seems to be working for all sides in a complicated effort to further his political career.  As part of the rebuilding effort, Peter is given a female coach, Elizabeth Zackell, who is a great hockey player but not much of a people person.  She must also face the prejudices of the town given her gender.  Three key players on the proposed team are mostly familiar from the first book - Amat, the small and young but fast player who spoke out against the accused rapist; Benji, the former best friend of the accused rapist who did not take his side and continues to hide his gender identity; and Bobo, a strong enforcer but not great skater who defended Amat in a fight against those who supported the accused rapist thus cementing their friendship.  Added to that is Vidar, who is the younger half brother of a local gang member who has just served time in juvenile detention.

The book also reintroduces other characters we have met before - Maya, the rape victim and Peter's daughter as well as Peter's wife and son; Amat and Bobo's mothers as well as Bobo's father; Benji's mother and 4 sisters; Maya's best friend Ana; the old woman who runs the local bar as well as the regulars at the bar.  It takes reading the whole book to decide who the "good guys" and the "bad guys" are in this one which is part of what makes it such an engaging read.

Like the past book, the chapters and small sections within chapters are written from dozens of perspectives - sometimes it even takes a short re-read to figure out who is narrating at any given time.  This is another writing technique that makes the book hard to get into at first but hard to put down once you do as you really want to figure out how all the perspectives fit together.

If you liked Beartown, I recommend this for you. And though you could read it as a standalone, I think it's much better if you've read the first one.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Other People's Houses by Abbi Waxman

After reading the heavy Washington Black, this book was a good "palate cleanser".  Light and humorous but still a worthwhile read.  The book is written from the perspective of several neighbours  though the primary narrator is the mother who drives the carpool for all of them, Frances.  Frances is the frazzled stay at home mother to three children, a 14 year old daughter who has just turned into a typical eye-rolling, moody teenager, a 10 year old easy going son and a 4 year old daughter.  Frances' marriage is somewhat staid and boring, but very solid.

One morning Frances walks into her neighbour Anne's house to find her in the midst of oral sex with a man who is definitely not Anne's husband.  Frances resolves to keep it to herself, but is unable to do so when Anne's husband, Charlie, finds out about the affair and throws her out of the house.  Charlie is devastated though still in love with his wife and struggles to deal with his children who are 6 and 10.

The other interesting families on the block are Frances' cousin, her wife and their 6 year old son.  They are struggling with whether or not to have another child.  The carpool is rounded out by Bill's 4 year old son.  Bill's wife mysteriously disappeared several months ago and none of the nosey neighbours know why.

The book is essentially the fallout of Anne's affair and the impact it has on the whole carpool.  The interactions are very funny yet believable.  This is no great work of literature but it's a fun read.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Most years I read the Giller prize winner and, often, I am very disappointed.  In the odd year I don't even bother as I can tell from the description the book won't be for me.  But not this year - Washington Black was a fantastic book and Edugyan was highly deserving of the prize.  I will say I also enjoyed her previous winning novel, Half-Blood Blues, but I think this one was better.

When the action begins Washington Black is an eleven year old slave on a Barbados sugar plantation.  The ownership of the plantation has recently changed hands and the slaves are treated very cruelly.  Washington keeps his head down and tries to survive with the protection of Big Kit, an adult female slave.  Early on she suggests suicide might be a better alternative for them and paints for Washington a beautiful picture of how it will lead to freedom.  However, when another slave attempts suicide he is severely punished and Big Kit abandons that plan.

One night Big Kit and Wash are asked to serve a meal in the big house.  There Wash is singled out by the plantation owner's eccentric brother, Titch, who is an abolitionist and a scientist.  Wash is sent to live with Titch and to aid in his scientific experiments - which for the most part revolve around crafting a hot air balloon with the capacity to cross an ocean.  Wash is fearful of living with Titch, but for the most part is treated well.

However, one night a man dies in circumstances that place Wash under suspicion and Titch decides to risk his family's wrath by helping Wash to escape the island.  They travel in Titch's not fully perfected hot air balloon and make a crash landing on a cargo ship which carries them to the eastern US.  There they run from a bounty hunter who has been charged with finding Wash, dead or alive.  Ultimately with the assistance of the underground railroad they make their way to the Canadian Arctic where Titch's father, who he thought was dead, is conducting his own research.  There Titch ultimately abandons Wash who spends the rest of his life trying to recover from that.

Though ostensibly free, Wash lives in constant fear for his life as he believes the bounty hunter is after him even years after slavery was abolished in Barbados.  He travels to Atlantic Canada where he becomes the assistant to another scientist, and the lover to his daughter.  Together they travel to London where they are setting up an aquarium and take trips to the Netherlands and Morocco to try to resolve what has happened to Titch.

Part adventure story, part study in human relationships and very much a treatise on the ills of slavery and discrimination, this is a fantastic book.