Review: Rockbound by Frank Parker Day

2017: 37
4.5 of 5 stars
Published January 1928

This really is a David vs Goliath tale where a young man, David, comes to a small rocky island off the coast of Nova Scotia to work as a shareholder in the fishing industry with his uncle Uriah Jung who is “king” of the island though the rival family, the Krauses are continually the bane of his existence. David has inherited a legitimate share and is determined to make a living. He’s a hard worker and does not back down when challenged.

The life of a fisherman when this book was written, in the late 1920s, was tough, tougher and more arduous than you can imagine, without even any outboard motors on the boats at the beginning of the book though they crept in. It was man against the sea and the tremendous forces of nature and nature usually won if it had a mind to. There’s drama on the island, family relationships, as David slowly finds his feet and starts to make a home for himself.

David spends most of his time on the island of Rockbound at odds with Uriah Jung. His best friend is Gershom who ends up being a rival for the love of the new school teacher, Mary along with one of Uriah’s sons. The men of the island are rough and strong and hard workers. The women, too, work hard and seem to be stoic in their acceptance of their lot in life, a life for all which is very hard. The ocean is almost a character itself with many moods and tempers.

The book is written with the dialogue as spoken, a very strong accent similar to what we think of as from Newfoundland but I suppose the fishing community would spread out all around the Maritimes from a similar origin. I didn’t find it difficult to read because I can hear it spoken in my head but some may find it hard to decipher. I think the depiction of the life of an early-twentieth century fisherman is accurate and the main characters and dialogue are both true, real. And that David and Goliath story? We know how that came out though how Goliath is ultimately brought down in the end is a spoiler.

This book won Canada Reads in 2005. It would have been interesting to hear the competition and defenses.

World Book Day

April 23 is World Book Day. It’s been organized by UNESCO to promote literacy and publishing. The date traces back to Spain in 1923, where they wanted to honour author Miguel Cervantes who died on this date. Also, it’s the birth and death date of William Shakespeare. Wikipedia has an odd trivia fact about these two authors who died on the same date in 1616. Cervantes actually died 10 days earlier because Spain did not use the same calendar that England did (Gregorian Vs Julian). Not every country celebrates it on the same date but many countries do mark a date for it.

So today, read a book to or with your kids. Visit a library. Or why not read a classic book? I’ve got Rockbound by Canadian author Frank Parker Day on the go (stay tuned for review when I’m done). That was written in 1928 and takes place in a small fishing village on a tiny island off the coast of Nova Scotia, a kind of David vs Goliath story, Goliath being either the antagonist of the story or the force of the sea. Or both. I like to try to read a few classics ever year, either Canadian classics or others.

There is this list from CBC on the 100 Novels that make you proud to be a Canadian. There are a lot of great books on there, both by authors that are Canadian literature royalty and new, exciting authors. My favourites from the list are: Fall On Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald which I’m planning to reread this year, Annabel by Kathleen Winter, Galore by Michael Crummey (or anything by him), The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill, The Outlander by Gill Adamson, and oh gosh, there really are a lot of good books on that list, and I’ve only read about a third of them.

There really are some great authors producing books of all types and genres. That’s the best thing about reading, there is bound to be something that interests you, be it fiction, non-fiction, graphic novel, audio book, magazines that will cover pretty much every topic under the sun. Reading improves your vocabulary, your imagination, your intelligence. You can learn from any kind of reading and you’ll never be bored if you have something to read.


Review: The Grownup by Gillian Flynn

2017: 36
3.5 of 5 stars
Published June 2014

This is a novella or a long short story by Gillian Flynn, the woman behind Gone Girl, Sharp Objects and Dark Places, all of which I really enjoyed.

The unnamed narrator is a woman that has grown up running cons with her grifter mother and is now giving psychic readings in the front of the shop and hand jobs in the back. Most of the people that come in for readings are easy marks for someone that can read people well but when Susan Burke comes in, clearly upset, the narrator gets drawn into a tangle of a situation. Is Susan’s house haunted? Is her stepson evil or possessed? Is the con being conned? The story was pretty good, but the ending was a bit fast and loose.

Review: Lullabies for Little Criminals – Heather O’Neill

4 of 5 stars
Published October 2006

This is a debut novel by a Canadian writer, Heather O’Neill from Montreal and it is sharp, gritty and heartbreaking but ultimately full of hope.

Baby is a 12/13 year old living with her father in a series of grotty apartments in Montreal. Her father, Jules, can barely look after himself let alone a child. He was only 15 when she was born and hadn’t had much of an example as to how to parent. Baby’s mother died not long after she was born so the two of them have managed to survive somehow. Jules has a heroin habit, sometimes on, sometimes off and a penchant for taking off and leaving Baby alone for days at a time. Baby drifts from one “friend” to another, getting into scrapes. She has no self esteem and is vulnerable to a charismatic neighbourhood pimp who turns his eye to her.

O’Neill speaks from the point of view of a 12 year old quite well, promoting her vulnerabilities, her fear, her childish joy, her longing for something better and acceptance for the life she has. It’s a tough, dark story to read. Not a lot of really good things happen to Baby. You ache for Baby when she’s bullied, you fear for her when the pimp closes in, you get angry when her useless father doesn’t treat her well, you worry when she’s out on the streets with violent friends, you watch the train wreck of addiction speeding ahead.

You get drawn into Baby’s life and you want to see her find a safe place to grow up and pull herself up away from the influences that are dragging her down and will continue to do so until something really bad inevitably happens. You hope against hope that she’ll find some stability and support. She’s a tough little cookie but she’s still just a child and shouldn’t have to experience the things she does. Even she knows that but she’s all but given up because it’s just easier to give in with so much stacked against her.  Reading this book feels unrelentlessly bleak but you also feel like it’s very real and true.

You even feel a bit of sympathy for Jules who really was too young to be a father and was left along at 16 to bring up a baby totally unprepared, struggling to keep themselves fed, housed and then succumbing to addictions. He does seem to love her but doesn’t know how to show it and she really needs someone to love her and be a positive influence which he’s not. You have to give him credit for keeping her, not giving her up to the system when Baby’s mother died on one hand but on the other, maybe that would have been better for her in the long run. He finds an extreme solution to keep her safe that ultimately almost pushes her away from him for good. In the end, there is an open door and a ray of hope.

This book won several awards and nominated for awards when it was released and was a Canada Reads winner in 2007.

Review: Kin by Lesley Crewe

3.5 of 5 stars
Published September 2012

Kin is the story of siblings Annie and David Macdonald and Annie’s best friend Lila. It traces their lives and their subsequent families from the 1930s into the millenium, mainly based in the Glace Bay area of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. I don’t get to read that many books based in my home province and always enjoy the ones I have found. Lesley Crewe is a fairly new author for me. She writes books about friendships and families, mostly all pretty relateable (though the last one I read, Hit & Mrs, was a bit off the wall).

I usually always enjoy a “family saga” book, one that traces several generations. I also usually find that the first and second generation are more interesting and have more detail than the later ones. In this case, most of the book focusses on Annie, David and Lila. The next generation doesn’t really get as much of a look in until a good 2/3 of the way through the book but having said that, it’s still about the family as a whole.

Family, marriages, relationships, friendships. Good times, bad times, tragedy, birth and death. Just like life. The writing style was a bit different again from the other two books of hers I read, which were each different from each other. This one seemed to have more of an ordinary feel which might have been deliberate since it was about an ordinary family. I enjoyed the mostly Cape Breton locations with a bit of Halifax and Montreal thrown in. Lots of familiarity there for me. The characters are also believable and when you can see that their life decisions feel like a train wreck, you find yourself riding along with them, waiting for the inevitable.

The author doesn’t shy away from the difficult and tragic events and a couple of them are particularly sad. But again, that’s life as we all know it. We all survive and deal with devastating events and losses and hopefully we have the support of a strong family to help us get through.

(This will fill one of my Bingo challenge squares for a book written in my home province)

Lost in the translation

The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye – book cover

I’ve been a big fan of the Steig Larsson books, the Millennium trilogy (Lisbeth Salander, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo….that series). The author died but a couple of years ago, another Swedish writer took up the mantle. David Lagercrantz released The Girl in the Spider’s Web. I read it. I thought it was not *quite* as good or gripping but… not bad either. A Worthy successor and it was popular enough to become a legitimate best seller. Why did they even bother, some might ask? Leave well enough alone. Maybe yes. But why not? There are a lot of books and series that take up the characters in Star Wars, Star Trek etc. Not quite the same thing since they weren’t books to start with but authors are still creating new works about well known characters.

There was a sequel written many decades after Gone With the Wind, approved by the estate of Margaret Mitchell called Scarlett. It wasn’t bad but it was more of a bodice ripper type historical romance than the original which was very, very good and while did centre on Scarlett O’Hara’s loves, was also set in the Civil War and the lives of people in the South during and after. The sequel was more about Scarlett’s campaign to get Rhett Butler back. The mini series they made from it was appalling. Even though the author of the sequel wrote the mini series, she still changed the ending which made no sense to me. Why have a different ending from the book you wrote if you figured you’d be selling the filming rights to it anyway? (without looking it up. perhaps she even got the contract to write the book with the knowledge that she’d be writing a filmed version, for all i know).

Never mind that. The Spider’s Web book was quite good even if not quite the same treatment of the characters that Larsson created. There’s a new sequel coming out this fall called The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye. Oh dear. Not too keen on that title. I don’t really like the cover either. The series has mostly not had the same English titles as the Swedish books. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was titled differently and was a translation from the Swedish to English title “Men Who Hated Women”. “The Girl Who Played with Fire” is a direct translation. “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” should have been “The Air Castle That Exploded” when translated from the Swedish which sounds very awkward and Spider’s Web translates to “That Which Does Not Kill Us”.

Sure enough, the new book is titled in Swedish as Mannen som jagade sin skugga and translates to ”The Man who Chased his Shadow”. Again, why couldn’t they have gone with that? Probably because the publishers for the English Speaking World originally wanted to use something that ties them all together and make it a recognizable series. I would think they might not have wanted to alienate people with The Man Who Hated Women and since the plot centers on Lisbeth Salander, they went with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and a series was born.

What baffles me is why the Lagerkrantz books, at least, didn’t stay with “The Girl Who…” titles since that’s what they would inevitably be in English anyway. Larsson’s books weren’t published until after his death so he didn’t know what they’d be titled in English. I expect the publisher took the title of the second book, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest and ran with that as the theme.

The plot of the new book, according to this Swedish site (though it’s in English), says that Lisbeth is in a harsh women’s prison and gets new information about her past. It’s about Lisbeth taking revenge. Nothing new about that. That’s been a common thread in all of these books. I think the more I look at it, the more I intensely dislike the English title they’ve chosen for it.

Entertainment Weekly has a short interview with Lagercrantz. He says that the plot will revolve around the history behind the massive dragon tattoo on Lisbeth’s back. The author is also contracted for another book after this one.

One thing I have to mention, however, is the overall translation of the book to English. It is quite an accomplishment to translate a book from one language to another and have the essence of what the original author wanted to convey captured really well. Authors have a style, they have their own ways of using language and grammar, and it brings the book and the characters to life. That must be very difficult for a translator to do well. I don’t read any other language so perhaps the English translations would be a let down, I don’t know. But translations I’ve read from various languages all seem to be excellent and these are no different. I read these books and have never felt like the story suffered for the translation, that it didn’t flow or that it felt awkward at all. I’ve read books translated from Norwegian, Swedish, Icelandic, Japanese, Russian and French, just to name a few. Translators are unsung heros, I think, and I wonder how many of them must be writers in their own right?

The next news on this same subject is the films. I saw the original three Swedish films with Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth. They were excellent. Sony made an American version of the first book in 2011 starring Rooney Mara and it did ok I think. I liked it well enough but the Swedish version had a bit more atmosphere, I think. The second and third books were supposed to be filmed with the same cast but have had scheduling problems and I haven’t heard anything about it. I don’t think they’re going to be made at all because there isn’t even a placeholder for either film on IMDB. It seems that Sony is jumping into Spider’s Web instead but not using the same cast as the first American version. It will be interesting to see who they end up casting. The IMDB placeholder is here but they only have credits for the director and writers so far.

The trivia on the IMDB page speaks about the possibility of casting either Natalie Portman or Scarlett Johansson but I wouldn’t like either of them in the role. Far too “Hollywood”. The first Hollywood version used an actor who was less known and I think it worked better. Another name that’s been mentioned is Alicia Vikander who is Swedish and was the robot in Ex Machina. Might have possibilities there. She appears to be filming a new version of Tomb Raider so she will likely have the chops to do action.

I’ll be following this with interest and I am pretty sure I’ll be buying the book when it comes out in the fall.

Ooh, and in doing some research, I discovered a Wiki for the Millenium books, here. Excellent. I shall have a good rummage around there.

Review: The Muse by Jessie Burton

2017: 33
4.5 of 5 stars
Published June 2016

I really liked Jessie Burton’s first novel, The Miniaturist (review), a historical fiction taking place in Amsterdam in the late 17th century. The Muse is Ms. Burton’s next novel and it, too, is historical fiction, weaving together two stories, one from 1936 and one from 1967, around a painting.

Odelle is a Trinidadian immigrant living in London in 1967. She’s spent the first few years there selling shoes but has finally found an office job in a gallery and met a man, Lawrie, at the wedding of her best friend, Cynth. Lawrie’s recently deceased mother left him a painting and he thinks it might be worth something. He brings it to the gallery where Odelle works and the gallery owner believes it’s a long lost painting by a Spanish artist, Isaac Robles. His assistant, the enigmatic Marjorie Quick, takes Odelle under her wing, encouraging her writing talent. There’s something about the Surrealist painting that draws people in but is it really by Robles? Marjorie Quick seems to know more than she’s saying.

In the south of Spain in 1936 in the months leading up to the Spanish Civil War, we meet the Schloss family. Olive, the daughter, wants to be an artist but knows her art dealer father doesn’t believe women can be true artists. Her mother, Sarah, is staggering through life, with a bottle in one hand and a pill or two in the other, off in her own world most of the time. Two locals, Isaac and his sister Teresa, are employed by the Schloss family. Isaac is an artist as well as a firm believer in the upcoming revolution while Teresa has secrets of her own.

The story is told between the two timelines, in 1967 where Odelle is trying to discover the secrets behind the painting and in 1936, the real story of it. There’s going to be a connection between the past and “present” because that’s how these things work.  The fun is in the guessing. Halfway through, I thought I had it figured out and I did, partially.

The female characters in this book, as in her first book, are vivid and believable. We have two women, one an artist and one a writer, both of whom reluctant to show their talent to the world, both having someone, another woman each, that pushes them to try to encourage them to make something of their talent. The real story is in the past. Those in the present don’t make a lot of headway in peeling back the layers of the secret until the end. The Schloss family dynamic seems dysfunctional and into that, the mix of Isaac and his sister Teresa might be lighting a fuse that leads to an implosion. You know it won’t end well for them but it’s hard to put the book down until you find out what happens.