Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty

This book is a bit of a guilty pleasure - not a lot of literary substance but a gripping story that's hard to put down.

The story is about nine people who check into a wellness retreat in a secluded mansion in Australia.  The group is fairly diverse - a middle aged, twice divorced woman whose career as a romance writer is flagging and who has just been burned in love; a somewhat overweight middle aged man who looks vaguely familiar to the others; a divorced single mother of 4 who is feeling overweight as her husband left her since he was no longer attracted to her; a wealthy young couple; a handsome divorce lawyer and a teacher, his midwife wife and their adult daughter.  The chapters are narrated by many of these characters in turn as well as by the Russian immigrant woman who runs the retreat and her two employees.

It is clear from the start that there is something a little bit off about Masha, the owner of the retreat.  As time passes the participants learn just how unconventional her techniques are - but it does lead them to examine their lives and their relationships (with those participants they knew previously as well as the others) which was the point of the retreat in the first place.

It was just really interesting to see how the participants reacted and evolved over their week long stay - some for better; others for worse.  I also particularly liked the end chapters which move forward in time by weeks, months, then years.

I recommend this book if you're just looking for an interesting character study with enough narrative action to keep you focused.  While it's an easy read, it's not short, so expect to take some time.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Two Very Different Memoirs

Boy Wonders by Cathal Kelly

I read this book because I think Kelly is one of the most talented current Canadian journalists.  He writes mostly, but not exclusively, sports stories and he writes so well he manages to interest me in topics I would only having a passing interest in, at best.

Unfortunately, I didn't come away with the same positive feelings about his memoir.  It is written in short chapters that are each more like a distinct short story or newspaper article.  His writing style is still excellent (for the most part, I really didn't like the chapter of lists).  But either his life hasn't been that interesting or he only attacked it in a somewhat superficial way.  I just didn't get drawn into his narrative (contrast that to the book I review next).  I sympathized with some of the difficulties he had as a child - particularly his relationship with his alcoholic father - but I just didn't really feel his pain.

He does admit to not being a very nice kid, which I guess takes courage, but I felt he really scratched the surface when he could have gone deeper.  I've read his stories about baseball players which have left me more satisfied.

I wouldn't bother - stick to reading his articles in the Globe.

The Woo-Woo: How I Survived Ice Hockey, Drug Raids, Demons and my Crazy Chinese Family by Lindsay Wong

Unlike Kelly's book, I hesitated for a long time before I decided to read this book.  The description made it sound a bit too weird.  But I shouldn't have hesitated for a moment.  I was sucked into Wong's dramatic life from the very start.

Wong is the daughter of immigrants from Hong Kong who grew up in Vancouver (which she refers to as Hongkouver).  Unfortunately, her grandmother, mother and aunt all suffered from mental illness (paranoid schizophrenia and bipolar disorder), but due in part to their illness and in part to their cultural upbringing, believed they were haunted by "woo woo", ghosts who come to visit in times of personal turmoil.  Thus they did not seek conventional medical attention which may have vastly improved Wong's childhood.

She describes horrifying incidents where she spent days living in a suburban shopping mall to evade the woo woo, weeks when her mother disappeared and left her verbally abusive and domestically incompetent father in charge, and even a time when her mother set her feet on fire as she slept in too late.  Her parents had little regard for proper hygiene or diet and Wong was given no social coping skills other than the fighting she learned in hockey (her father actually financially rewarded her for penalty minutes).  Not surprisingly, she had no friends at school and was often suspended for fighting.

As a child Wong looks up to her aunt - but she too suffers from bipolar disorder and makes headlines when she holds Vancouver commuters hostage on Canada Day as she threatens to jump from a bridge.  And while she treats Wong kindly, she is as abusive of her own daughter as Wong's parents are of her.

Wong finally emerges somewhat from her troubled life when she attends University of British Columbia.  There, because she has few friends, she throws herself into her studies, excels and is eventually accepted into the Fine Arts program at Columbia.  But there she is struck with debilitating migraines and vertigo and begins to worry she too is succumbing to the woo woo.  But with caring medical attention, and her mother coming through when she least expected it, she perseveres - and was able to write this amazing book.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The Proposal by Tasmina Perry

I only picked up this book because of the title.  The library reading challenge that I'm currently taking part in requires you two read two books with the same title and I had already read another with this name.

However, despite knowing nothing else about the book, I really ended up enjoying it - certainly not great literature but an easy interesting read.  It's part romance, part family drama, a little bit historical fiction.

The book starts in 2012 when Amy's wealthy boyfriend dumps her just before Christmas.  She is an American living in London with no family and is left to grieve alone.  She is also an aspiring dancer working as a waitress so has no money to visit her family in Queen's.

Fortuitously she sees an ad in a magazine asking for a companion to travel to New York over Christmas.  Drunk and sad, she answers the ad and meets with Georgia Hamilton, a 70 something British aristocrat and former publisher.  Georgia hires her for the trip and together they travel to Manhattan.

This story is interwoven with the story of Georgia's past which leads to the New York trip.  It starts in 1958 when she is part of the last group of debutantes to be presented to the Queen.  At that time she is living with her widowed mother, who is a struggling artist, so she must be presented to society by her aunt who comes from a more aristocratic background.  She is reluctant to participate, having just returned from finishing school in Paris and far more interested in a writing career than meeting a rich husband.

However, there are great scenes involving Georgia, her mother, aunt, uncle and cousins and the girls and boys she meets on the debutante circle.  Unfortunately she is ultimately betrayed by someone she loved, leading to a rather unhappy adulthood.

While somewhat fluffy, I did spend time thinking about this book after.  It said a lot about the perils of the class system and how the quest for money and status can make some people rather mean and vindictive.  But there were also wealthy characters who were fair and openhearted.  I felt rather sad for Georgia long after I closed the book.

Housegirl by Michael Donkor

I was on the waiting list at the library for this book for ages because it sounded interesting, but when I finally got it I struggled to get through it.

The story premise is interesting - Belinda, a 17 year old house girl from rural Ghana works in the home of a wealthier family in a town.  There she learns and abides by all the rules necessary to make her employers happy.  She also takes 11 year old Mary under her wing to try to help her function more effectively as a housekeeper.  Unfortunately this often means tamping down Mary's more rambunctious spirit.

When an expatriate Ghanian couple visit Belinda's household they decide she is exactly what their suddenly sullen teenager needs.  So they move Belinda to London to become a companion for their daughter, Amma.  Belinda is both bewildered by her new environment and very sad about leaving Mary behind.

Amma and Belinda are very different - both in background and temperament but eventually they discover they have more in common than they thought.  As Belinda spends more time there, studying at school and listening to Amma, secrets about her difficult past are revealed.  And the secrets that lead to Amma's recent change in behaviour all come out.

While the story is interesting I found it just moved much too slowly.  The use of local dialect interspersed with English rang true but sometimes just made it harder to get the point.

I wouldn't really bother with this book.

A Spark of Light by Jodi Picoult

I don't often read Jodi Picoult's books, but this one caught my eye because of the topic.  Most of the action takes place in the only clinic which offers abortions in the State of Mississippi.  A gunman bursts in and takes everyone inside hostage.  The group is diverse, the doctor who visits regularly to perform abortions, the nurse and social worker who work at the clinic, another nurse who is visiting the clinic, a young girl seeking advice about birth control and her aunt, an older woman struggling with a cancer diagnosis, a young woman who has just had an abortion and another one who is an anti-abortion activist acting under cover to try to obtain damning information about the clinic.

The book unfolds in reverse order (until the epilogue).  Every section takes place an hour earlier than the prior section - and through this reverse unfolding of events we learn the backstory of why everyone is in the clinic, including the gunman.  We also see events from the perspective of the police hostage negotiator whose daughter and sister happen to be inside the clinic.

Some chapters also take place across the state in a hospital where a 17 year old girl has ended up after  attempting to self-terminate her pregnancy.  An anti-abortion DA has charged her with murder.  She is frightened and alone - and eventually we learn her connection to the hostage crisis.

I really liked how Picoult wove together all the stories - and brought in all sides of this politically charged issue without obviously preaching any one position.  She also managed to surprise me with one plot twist related to the hostage negotiator which I really didn't see coming.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

That Time I Loved You by Carrianne Leung

This was a really well written novel by a local Toronto author.  Set on three streets in Scarborough in the 1970s it reads more like a series of connected short stories than an actual novel.

Many of the stories are written from the perspective of June, an adolescent Chinese-Canadian from Hong Kong.  Through her eyes we first learn of the tragic summer when three adults in the neighbourhood die by suicide.  We then learn the secrets of her other neighbours and friends - and everyone seems to be hiding something, whether it's abuse, extramarital affairs, infertility, or kleptomania.

The characters are all surprisingly well developed given how few pages some of them receive.  You get a real picture of suburban life in a middle class neighbourhood of immigrants from around the globe in the 1970s.

The Crazy Game by Clint Malarchuk

Not being a huge hockey fan, I knew very little about Clint Malarchuk, an NHL goalie in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  This book looked at his career but the focus was really on his struggle with mental health issues.

Even as a child Malarchuk struggled with depression, anxiety and OCD - however, at the time it wasn't diagnosed or talked about.  And he used his obsessive behaviours to his advantage in out working everyone until he ended up in the NHL.

Unfortunately the stress of the game made his anxiety worse and impacted his personal relationships - he was married 4 times and had one child with each of the first 3 wives.  But everything was really exacerbated when he took a skate to the jugular during a game and almost died.  No one talked about the potential psychological impact of the accident - it was only years later that it was recognized as PTSD.  Instead through sheer will he went back to playing, but never at the same level.  He also took to self medicating with alcohol which only made things worse.

After his playing days he tells the story of his mental health issues, his marital problems, a suicide attempt, rehab and his struggle to stay both sober and stable.  His fourth wife and her parents, as well as his mother and siblings, were tremendous supports.  He was also supported by some of his coaches and the NHLPA, eventually.

It was really interesting to watch the progression in the NHL on how mental health issues were dealt with (or even acknowledged at all).  While the league has come a long way, there's still work to be done.  Malarchuk speculates whether concussions may have exacerbated his mental health issues, but this is not something adequately recognized by the league yet.

While the book is not terribly well written, it does tell an interesting and important story.  By being so open, I'm sure Malarchuk will help many current and future athletes and others struggling with mental health issues.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Stay Where You Are and then Leave by John Boyne

This was a book about war which, of course, had its dark moments, but left me feeling optimistic.

It is written entirely from the perspective of Alfie Summerfield who is 5 at the book's start and 9 at the end.  Though he spends more time skipping school than attending, he is a clever and resourceful young boy.

The day after Alfie's 5th birthday World War I breaks out and his father enlists.  At first, while his father is in training, Alfie and his mother receive upbeat letters about the antics of his father's fellow soldiers.  But after his father is deployed, the letters become increasingly desperate then difficult to understand.  This leads Alfie's mother to hide them - but, being clever, he finds them.  He starts to worry when the letters stop coming; he is sure his father has died and no one wants to tell him.  So he sets out to find out what has happened to his father.

There are several interesting side stories - Alfie's best friend is the English born daughter of a Czech Jewish immigrant shopkeeper.  When war breaks out they are sent to an enemy internment camp on the Isle of Man.  Alfie can't figure out why this would happen (as it doesn't really make sense).  He also takes the opportunity to borrow the shoe shine kit his neighbour left behind and to set up shop as a shoe shine boy at the train station to supplement his mother's earnings.  There is one funny scene where he ends up shining the Prime Minister's shoes.

The story of Alfie's pacifist neighbour, and the abuse and imprisonment he suffers for being a conscientious objector, is also interesting.

But the main theme is Alfie's quest to find out what happened to his father - and it is a general lesson on the suffering of World War I soldiers.

I quite enjoyed this book.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Last Month's Books

I've joined a reading challenge at my local library so I've been reading a lot, and several of the books are outside my usual comfort zone.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
I know this is an older, very popular thriller, but I don't usually read thrillers.  I read this one because the author has the same initials as I do and that was one of the challenge categories.  Frankly I guess I understand why it was a popular book, but I didn't really enjoy it - just no my style.

Rachel is a rather sad, alcoholic woman who takes the same commuter train into downtown London every day.  Daily it stops at a switch which allows her to spy on the lives of a seemingly happy young couple who live on the block where she used to live (and where her ex now lives with his new family).  She imagines the life of this couple, including inventing names for them, and is surprised one morning when she sees the woman on the deck with a different man.

Soon after she learns of the couples' real names as she learns the wife has disappeared.  And to her dismay she is a suspect as she was in the neighbourhood the night of the disappearance, but can't recall what happened as she blacked out.

The book takes many crazy twists and turns as Rachel tries to find out what happened to the missing woman and at the same time must come to terms with her failed marriage, her failed career and her alcoholism.

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
This is also way outside my comfort zone as it is a graphic novel.  However, I found myself really enjoying it.  When the challenge required a graphic novel I remembered back to when this one was released.  I thought it sounded interesting at the time, but shied away because of the format.  Now I'm really glad I was challenged to try it - I have even put the sequel on my reading list!

The author grew up in Iran at the time of the revolution.  The book deals with the changes faced by very modern "westernized" people when the Islamic revolution resulted in drastic lifestyle changes, especially for a young teenage girl who had previously only been educated at co-ed French schools.

Both the words and the illustrations paint a clear picture of the impact on the author's life and, though not particularly complex or surprising, the story is an interesting read.

The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory
This is a sequel to Guillory's earlier romantic comedy, The Wedding Date, and is an equally fun read. Just to note, you don't have to have read the first book to enjoy or understand the second, there are just some overlapping characters.

In this book, Nikole goes to a Dodgers game with her semi-serious actor boyfriend and is shocked when he proposes to her on the scoreboard.  They had never discussed marriage and she really doesn't like him all that much (he doesn't even know how to properly spell her name on the scoreboard).  So when she turns him down publicly he and his friends retreat in anger leaving her to deal with an angry crowd and media circus.  Carlos and his sister Angie are sitting a few rows behind and come to her rescue by pretending to be long lost friends.

As I'm sure you've guessed, Carlos and Nikole slowly develop feelings for each other, despite their best intentions to avoid love.  Nikole is obviously burned by her disastrous relationship, and Carlos, a doctor in a new job is overwhelmed by his work and his responsibilities to his widowed mother, his sister and his cousin.

While the storyline is not surprising, Nikole and Carlos are likeable interesting characters, as are some of the side players like Carlos' sister.  Guillory writes with a lot of humour.  All in all it's a fun easy read.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
This is a very well written story about an odd, but likeable woman, who is suffering from the effects of childhood abuse, growing up in the foster system and social isolation.

The book is told from her very unique perspective - she is extremely socially awkward yet has a very defined sense of right and wrong which causes her to judge others in her own skewed way.  She is successful at her job but really has no idea how to interact with her colleagues so dreads any social interaction and races home to drink vodka all weekend.  Once a week she has dreaded phone conversations with her mummy.

Everything changes when she has to call the new IT person at her firm, Raymond.  He is awkward in his own way though far more functioning that Eleanor.  He is also extremely kind and works hard to bring Eleanor out of her shell - this is somewhat helped by their chance encounter with an elderly man who falls on the street.  When they get him help they are embraced by his large family.  Raymond also takes her to meet his mother who is also a bit lonely and gets her a cat to care for.

Through Raymond's kindness, Eleanor works to come to terms with her demons and while you don't get the impression she'll ever be totally "normal" she comes a long way.

Dear Evelyn by Kathy Page
This book was a little slow for my liking, but I'm not sorry I read it.  It essentially follows the long life and marriage of Harry Miles - starting with his birth on a working class London street between the world wars and ending when he is a great grandfather.

Harry is bright and wins a scholarship to a prestigious school.  There, through a teacher who is a veteran of the first world war, he discovers a love of poetry and a hatred of war.  Shortly after he meets Evelyn on the steps of a library.  She also has a love of literature but is a much stronger personality than the rather easygoing Harry.  They marry shortly before Harry enlists at the start of the second world war.  The title is taken from the long love letters he sends Evelyn while he is at war.

There are no major events in their lives to speak of.  In fact this is really the story of a very ordinary marriage and family life.  We see how two very different people make love work and build their lives on that foundation.

Turtles all the way Down by John Green
This young adult book written from the perspective of Aza, a teenage girl with an anxiety disorder, was really interesting.  The reader is drawn into her ever spiralling thoughts on everything from her fear of c-dificile, to her deceased father, to her friendship with Daisy (a Star Wars fan fiction writer) and her budding feelings for Davis, a boy who she met years before at "sad camp" (a camp for children whose parents died).  Though there is an action story surrounding the disappearance of Davis' billionaire father, the real story is Aza's inner struggle to deal with her very busy everyday life while constantly being hijacked by her own intrusive thought spirals.  It also clearly illustrates the benefits of strong parental support, therapy and friendships in dealing with this type of anxiety.