Friday, November 22, 2019

3 Novels and an Autobiography

The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall

This book was different than what I usually read, and at times a bit slow, but I enjoyed it.  It is set in the years 1950 to 1970 and follows the lives of two couples whose lives end up being extremely intertwined.

Charles comes from a wealthy but cold Boston family.  His father is an academic who assumes he will go to Harvard and then also become a professor.  But Charles surprises his stringently atheist father by deciding instead to become a Presbyterian minister.  Charles falls in love at first sight with Lily who he runs into at the Harvard Library.  Lily's lived a difficult life - an only child, her parents were killed in a car accident when she was a teenager.  Though she was taken in by loving aunts and uncles, it has killed any belief she has in God.  She is quite clear about that with Charles, but they end up together anyway.

James, who was raised by a drunk and abusive father, gets an unexpected gift from an uncle in Ireland which allows him to go to the University of Chicago.  There he also decides to go into the Ministry - more as a way to create social change than for his steadfast belief in God.  He also falls in love at first sight with Nan when she comes to play piano at his college.  She comes from a well to do Southern family - her father was also a minister.

James and Charles are hired as co-pastors of a Presbyterian church in New York City and the remainder of the book follows the lives of the two couples.  While the men work well together and like each other, Lily and Nan have trouble relating to each other.  This is exacerbated when Lily, who never really wanted to have children, gives birth to twins, and Nan, who desperately wants them is unable to conceive.  All of them are also challenged when one of the twins is diagnosed with autism at a time when the medical profession knew little about it and did even less for it.

In short this book is about love, faith, friendship, and parenthood.  Not a lot of action but still interesting.

All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg

This is another book that is really more about characters than action.  In this case, the patriarch Victor suffers a heart attack and is on his deathbed.  His daughter Alex rushes to New Orleans more to learn why her mother, Barbra, has stuck with this abusive, criminal man for so long, than to mourn her father.  Gary, who actually lives in New Orleans is in Los Angeles when his father takes ill and can't bring himself to return.  Gary's wife Twyla seems unwilling to leave Victor's bedside.

The book largely takes place over the course of one day (except really for the prologue and the epilogue).  Through Alex, Barbra, Twyla and Gary we learn about the distant and not so distant past and see why each of the characters has reacted to Victor's illness in the way they have.  Some of the secrets are quite surprising so I don't want to share them here.

I liked how all of the characters were very complex - not necessarily likeable but relatable.  It could at times be a bit of a slow read too.

Window on the Bay by Debbie Macomber

This was really just a beach read which I ordered at the beginning of summer but didn't make its way to me until long past beach season.

The story centres around Jenna and Maureen, divorced women who have been friends since college.  Jenna has recently become an empty nester and is at loose ends when she and Maureen decide to plan a long postponed trip to Paris.  But in the meantime they are both dipping their toes in the dating pool, with little success, when they find love in unexpected places.

Not very surprising or story, and no deeper meaning, but a good escape.

Me by Elton John

This is a fantastic autobiography by Elton John.  He does not credit a ghost writer so I guess he wrote it on his own and it's incredibly well written.  I was literally laughing out loud at some of his turns of phrase.  And, let's face it he's had a fascinating life so what's not to like about reading about it.

He goes through his shy and somewhat difficult childhood (his parents both had bad tempers and he was constantly hiding in his room), his early efforts as a singer, his chance meeting with Bernie Taupin that changed both of their lives, through to stardom, drug and alcohol addiction, rehab, founding the AIDS foundation, love, marriage and fatherhood.  It also revealed his recent struggle with prostate cancer which had not been previously publicized.

He of course shares details of his friendships with John Lennon, Rod Stewart, George Michael, Freddy Mercury, Gianni Versace and Princess Diana.  He also describes meetings with the Queen, the Queen Mother, Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley and a host of other marquis names.  But he spends just as much time talking about how his life was affected by a  young boy with hemophilia who contracted AIDS or a toddler he took to in a Russian orphanage.

Though he does criticize some people, he never comes off as mean spirited.  And he seems grateful for all his fame and fortune.  He definitely knows he's lucky to have avoided AIDS.  And it explains why he has yet to retire.

I really enjoyed reading this book.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

another slew of fall books

The books keep coming in more quickly than I can record my thoughts.  But there were a couple I really enjoyed in this group.

Cilka's Journey by Heather Morris
This is a second novel by the author of The Tattooist of Auschwitz and I would say I have similar criticisms of this book.  While the story is engaging, it seems to almost romanticize very difficult circumstances.

In this book we follow Cilka, who was in fact a minor character in the other book (and we do hear some passing news of the other characters from that book in this one).  She was taken to Auschwitz at age 16 and there installed as the mistress of two Nazi guards.  She was also put in charge of the barracks where women who were about to be gassed were placed for the night.  From Cilka's perspective she just did what she needed to survive.  But to the Russian liberators she was a collaborator so she was sentenced to 15 years in the Gulag in Siberia.

Taken to Siberia in the middle of winter and subjected to harsh labour she must again learn to survive - which again involves sleeping with brutal guards.  She also tries desperately to hide her past from the women in her bunk as she does not think they will understand why she did what she did to survive Auschwitz.

She gets a break when she is taken under the wing of a kind Russian doctor who supports her training as a nurse.  Through this relationship, and others in the camp, she learns to trust again and even manages to find love.  While the book does describe horrific things that happen both to Cilka and others, for me it all wrapped up a little too neatly.  That being said it's still an interesting read - you just have to suspend your disbelief a bit.

What Happens in Paradise by Elin Hilderbrand
This is a sequel to Hilderbrand's Winter in Paradise which came out last year (a third book is in the works for next year).  While you could theoretically read this book as a standalone, I wouldn't as I don't think you'd get nearly as much out of it.

The book is pure escapism, though I will say Hilderbrand has branched even further into the mystery/thriller genre (from her more familiar romance).  In the first book Irene Steele and her sons Cash and Baker discover following the death of their husband/father in a helicopter accident off the island of St. John that he was living a second life there.  He had a girlfriend (who died in the accident) and a twelve year old daughter.  After learning a little about that second life, Irene, Cash and Baker return to their lives in the US.  But they are contacted by the FBI and told that now they suspect the helicopter crash was in fact a murder.

So at loose ends for various reasons all three return to St. John.  Irene takes on a job as second mate on her husband's daughter's step grandfather's fishing boat (yes you read that complexity correctly).  There an unlikely romance begins to blossom.  Baker and Cash are both in love with Ayers (the best friend of their father's girlfriend) though she is back together with her old flame.  (One of my favourite parts is how this boyfriend calls Baker and Cash Banker and Money).

So the book explores these twisted romance stories all the while trying to figure out what happened in the helicopter crash.  And it ends with the FBI taking Irene's homes away - leading us all to want to read the next instalment to find out why.

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
Anyone who read this blog regularly will know I read a lot, and I like a lot of books by many different authors.  But when I dive into a book by a true master there's no comparison.  Atwood's writing style just blows me away.

As you likely know this is the long awaited sequel to The Handmaid's Tale.  For decades readers were asking Atwood how Gilead, the dystopian society in which The Handmaid's Tale is set, came to an end.  It is clear from that book that the society did not survive, but the book doesn't explain what happened.  This book answers that question.  And if I have to criticize it at all I would say that maybe Atwood tried too hard to give readers what she expected they wanted to hear.  As a reader it's hard to criticize that too strongly as of course it tells the story I wanted to hear too.

While the initial book was written from the perspective of the Handmaid, Offred, this one is told in three voices.  The first is Aunt Lydia with who we are very familiar from the first book.  She was one of the women who were allowed a certain degree of power within a very limited sphere - that is they terrorized (ostensibly trained) the handmaids.  While initially we saw Aunt Lydia only through Offred's eyes, now we get inside her head - and realize she is much more complex than we initially believed.

The second perspective is that of a young girl who was raised by foster parents within Gilead (having been taken from her birth parents who were deemed unworthy).  She is now being groomed to marry - really the only option for a girl of her standing.  She does not want to marry and turns to Aunt Lydia for assistance.

The third perspective is that of a young girl who was raised in Canada.  She learns that her past is more complex than she believed and that it involved a connection to Gilead.  Having learned in school about the evils of that society, she gets involved in trying to sabotage it.

I don't really want to tell you much more about this book as it would take away the joy of reading it.  And despite the heavy topic it is so well written I knocked it off in a little over a day - I couldn't put it down.

A must read.

The Billionaire Murders by Kevin Donovan
This is an expose by a Toronto Star reported on the shocking and as yet unsolved murders of Barry and Honey Sherman (he the chairman of a major generic pharmaceutical company; she a socialite and philanthropist).

Donovan carefully goes through everything he can find about the investigation - interviewing the police, going to court to get documents unsealed, interviewing the private investigators hired by the Sherman family to conduct their own investigation and talking to numerous friends, colleagues and family members.

It is also a critique of the police investigation which initially seemed to waste time on the conclusion that this was a murder suicide which was hard to reconcile with the crime scene.

In the end Donovan tells a story that suggests numerous possible assailants - in his view it could only have been an insider who was extremely familiar with the Shermans' habits and schedules on the days surrounding the murder.  Based on his analysis I can't say I have a very strong feeling about who the murderer was though I do have some suspicions about more than one person.

Donovan also delves into the lives of the Shermans which was fairly interesting on its own.  It will be fascinating to see how his theories hold up if and when there are actually arrests in this case.

Take it Back by Kia Abdullah
I don't remember where I heard about this book, but I'm sure happy I did - it was really fantastic.

The basic premise of the story is that, Jodie Wolfe, a 16 year old Caucasian girl with facial deformities accuses 4 Muslim classmates of gang rape.  The boys are handsome, well liked and come from hardworking immigrant families.  Much of the narrative deals with the investigation and trial into Jodie's accusations.  And I must say I really wasn't sure who to believe until the very end.  The characters are so well developed they are all credible or not credible to the same degree.

But there is much more to this book - Jodie enlists Zara, a Muslim lawyer at a rape crisis centre, to shepherd her case through the legal system.  Zara has problems of her own having left a prominent job as a Barrister, walked away from an arranged marriage and become estranged from her father immediately prior to his death.  This leads her to depression and drug use.  Her taking on a case against members of her community also leads to tremendous tension with her family and other community members.  So the examination of race relations in London as well as the pressures put on young immigrant women to live in two rather different worlds is also at the forefront of the story.

I really liked the writing style and the story sucked me in from the start.  The characters were also so interesting as they were multi-faceted and I went from liking to disliking them - often in the span of the same chapter.