Review: Summer of My Amazing Luck – Miriam Toews

2017: 66
3 of 5 stars
Published 1996

I’ve read two or three of Miriam Toews’ books and they’re fabulous so when I was looking around for a book to read for the Cross Canada reading challenge for the province of Manitoba, someone reminded me that Ms. Toews is from there and many of her books are situated in that province. Oh, yes! I had forgotten that. I looked at the descriptions for the ones I hadn’t read and decided on Summer of My Amazing Luck, which is her first novel, and borrowed it from the library’s digital site.

Lucy is an 18 year old single mum of an infant boy. She moves into a public housing block in Winnipeg known by the residents as “Half-a-Life” and meets Lish, a single mum of four girls. Lish’s two youngest, twins, were conceived on a one night stand with a busker, a man whose name she never got, a man she thinks might have been the love of her life. Years after their encounter, she gets a letter from him fondly remembering their night together and she and Lucy and the kids embark on a road trip to find him.

The novel is filled with great, quirky characters, mostly residents of the apartment building, mostly single women with children all trying to survive on welfare. But this isn’t a story about the grim realities of poverty that these women are enduring. It’s a lighthearted look at friendship and endurance as Lucy tells us about Life at Half-a-Life. The women struggle but they are strong and there’s always hope. There are lots of references to Canadian pop culture, Manitoba weather, and government red tape to be untangled, all of  which I liked. It all contributed to making this story feel “real”.

Lucy is telling the story but she’s probably the least interesting character. Her mother died 3 years ago but she’s not really grieved properly and her father is not emotionally there for her. She’s got a baby and she’s new to the welfare system so it’s overwhelming for her to figure out the system, something the other mothers have already gone through. At 18, she’s clearly not as mature as she thinks she is. She mentions a couple of times that she spends more time interfering in other peoples’ lives yet I didn’t get that at all aside from the one big lie she told to her friend.  Lish is easily the most colourful, with eccentricities in her personality, the way she dresses and the way she raises her kids. The road trip was brief and not a huge part of the book like the description would have you believe. It’s a turning point for Lucy, I think, coming to terms with her mother’s death and her own life. I also seemed to have missed the point of the book’s title. It doesn’t seem to match the story.

This is Miriam Toews’ debut novel and while her more recent ones are more serious and heart wrenching, you can clearly see in this book that she has talent and a grasp of making her characters leap off the page, utterly identifiable to the reader. To me, anyway. I will be working my way through her books and highly recommend her as an author to anyone.

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Cross Canada Reading Challenge (Manitoba)

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Review: A Stranger in the House – Shari Lapena

2017: 65
3 of 5 stars
Published 2017

I enjoyed Ms. Lapena’s first novel, The Couple Next Door and was pleased to win this in a Goodreads giveaway. This book starts with a woman driving away from a derelict area and crashing her car. She can’t remember anything about why she was where she was or any other circumstances about the crash. A  murdered man is discovered in an abandoned restaurant. The two incidents may be related.

The woman is Karen and her husband is Tom. They’ve been married for 2 years but it turns out Karen’s past is a blank, not just to Tom. The more Tom realizes he doesn’t know his wife at all, the more he becomes suspicious. Is she a murderer? Did she know the dead man? Who is she, really? Karen claims she can’t remember the accident but she knows something. What is in her past that she seems to want to hide? Is it related to the murder/accident?

Not bad, though kind of predictable. The plot twist about Karen’s background didn’t inspire me. It’s been done before and is a fairly standard plot device. When her memory starts coming back, it felt too coincidental that, at first, she remembered right up until the crucial minutes and that dragged on a bit longer again until her memory was fully restored. Add in a cliche obsessed neighbour, a former lover of Tom’s and a determined detective.

Tom is irritating and hypocritical, having his own secret or two and then getting in a knot over his wife’s past.  The two twists at the end were also predictable, pulling the rating down another half a point.  The book is written well enough but it’s not really very original.

This was a Goodreads giveaway that I won for a review.

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Review: All Is Beauty Now – Sarah Faber

2017:64
4.5 of 5 stars
Published 2017

A young woman, Luiza,  walks into the water at a sunny beach in Brazil in 1962. She disappears and no body was found and she is presumed drowned, washed out to sea. A year later, her family is still reeling from the apparent drowning and has decided to move their family back to Canada because the father, Hugo, a Canadian citizen, needs medical treatment and it’s free in Canada. As they prepare, pack and spend time with friends, the story digs into the family,  their background and  personalities as each one deals with their grief in their own way.

Dora, Luiza’s mother, is desperate to learn about her daughter’s last days and still hopes against hope that her daughter is alive somewhere. The affair she had years ago is going to prove to have huge consequences. Hugo, Luiza’s father, is spiraling back into another manic “high” phase, and we find out Dora and the family have been dealing with his mental illness  all their married life.  Their other two daughters, Evie and Magda are very different personalities with their own secrets as they’re reaching their teens, becoming more aware of the adult realities of the family. Through flashbacks, we also learn about Luiza’s last months, weeks and days before her disappearance.  Hugo was adored by his daughters while Dora has to carry the burden of dealing with his illness more directly.

The story is told alternatively from each of their points of view. The atmosphere of Rio in the early 60s is vividly described. The story of this family, beautiful and glamourous on the surface,  reveals more and more layers beneath the brittle exterior. There’s one chapter describing Hugo’s thoughts while in his mania that is just breathtakingly, achingly bizarre, glorious and heartbreaking. The children think he shouldn’t be drugged and made to think and be like “normal”people, that his imagination and his ravings are what make him exciting but Dora, having to deal with his excessive highs and lows, ends up being the bad guy in her children’s eyes because she has to deal with it on an adult level, he can be dangerous to himself and his daughters in that state.

When all the secrets are revealed and the dust settles, you find yourself wanting to go back and start the ride all over again. This is a debut novel and is beautifully written, with the voices of each character unique and insightful .The author has captured the innocence of the children as well as the voices of the adults in a believable way.

And now I want to travel to Rio!

Thanks to Netgalley for a digital ARC for review.

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High Praise Indeed

Jane Austen on the 10 pound note

Hot on the heels of my earlier post about Jane Austen, I’ve discovered that her picture is going to be on the British 10 pound note in commemoration of the anniversary of her death this year. This was just announced this morning at Winchester Cathedral where she’s buried. Apparently, though, this portrait was not one of her in life, but done some time after her death and is not all that accurate. She’s been made to look much prettier, something you’d do with Photoshop these days. There was only one known portrait of Jane done in her lifetime. It was a sketch by her sister Cassandra and it shows a more mousy looking face, with a pointed chin and bags under her eyes. You can see that here.

The bill is not paper, either, but printed on a plastic polymer. We in Canada have had our money in this material for a couple of years and I can tell you it’s awful. It might be more secure but it’s slippery and doesn’t stay when you fold it. And when you do fold it , it doesn’t want to flatten out very well when you hand it over to pay for something. But I digress…

Jane is only the third women to be on one of the bank notes in the U.K., the other two being ?Florence Nightengale and the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry.  Jane will replace Charles Darwin, the current resident on the “tenner”. The new bill goes into circulation in September.

All About Austen

This year marks the 200th anniversary since writer Jane Austen died. Miss Austen was 41 and had never married. Jane Austen wrote 7 books, 3 of which were published after she died, which have become hugely popular classics. They are “Pride and Prejudice”, “Northanger Abbey”, “Sense and Sensibility”, “Emma”, “Persuasion”, “Susan” and “Mansfield Park”. She also published three collections of “Juvenilia”, odds and ends written when she was younger including poems, satirical pieces, essays etc.

Royal Circus

Bath – The “Royal Circus”. Houses by architect John Wood, the Elder (and the Younger who finished the work his father began)

Jane Austen has become hugely popular, as I’ve said, to the point where there are university courses on her life and works and there are Austen scholars that spend their careers researching this woman. There isn’t a lot of detail known about her. She was a private person and there were not many women writers back then. Because she never married, she lived with family, stayed with friends when she could. She’s associated with the city of Bath which also features in several of her books. There is a Jane Austen museum/resource centre in the historic city and Bath attracts a lot of her fans. The Georgian streets haven’t changed a lot in 200 years aside from the shops sporting more electric signs and the hordes of tourists. The architecture is elegant and graceful and the streets wide enough for two carriages to pass by. You can still imagine what it was like in the days when Bath was *the* place to be seen by society.

Austen heroes

Everyone has their favourite of her novels, with most people pointing to Pride and Prejudice. I think that has to do, in part, with the British series starring Colin Firth as Darcy. Many a heart beat a little faster watching him dive into that pond and emerge soaking wet with his white shirt nearly transparent and clinging to his broad chest.

Excuse me. I’ll just go sit by the air conditioner for a minute.

Actually, my favourite Austen book is Persuasion and, I confess, that’s also influenced by a filmed version that the BBC did staring Amanda Root as Anne Elliott and Ciaran Hinds as Captain Wentworth. Oh yes. A very close runner up was the movie Sense and Sensibility starring Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet and Hugh Grant. Rickman’s Colonel Brandon will also set pulses racing! I also confess that I hadn’t read any Jane Austen until I had seen my first filmed version, P&P and then Persuasion, both of which persuaded (ahem) me to pick up the books. There have been a few filmed versions of these novels that I’ve enjoyed and a great number of movies and tv series that have been made from them. It says something about the perpetual popularity of Austen’s works that they continue to be made.

Other filmed versions I’ve enjoyed are Emma starring Gwyneth Paltrow and also Alicia Silverstone’s Clueless was based on Emma and it was quite fun as well. Mansfield Park starring James Purefoy and Frances O’Connor. P&P probably has the most filmed versions including a 1938 movie and a 1952 television series, 6 episodes, starting Peter Cushing as Mr. Darcy! Fans of Cushing’s horror movies will find that an odd casting choice but of course he was an actor long before he became popular for the macabre. However, there’s also Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Cushing would have fit right in there! It’s a bizarre mash up of P&P and the current zombie fad where the five Bennet sisters are badass zombie fighters.

There’s a really good podcast by the British newspaper, The Guardian, here which includes an interview with historian Lucy Worsley . The podcast talks more about the woman, Jane Austen, who she was and why she’s popular. Lucy Worsley has a  new book about Jane, “Jane Austen at Home” which  covers her home life via the various homes where she lived and how that was so important to her books’ characters. If you’re a fan of Jane Austen, you will enjoy this new book.

 

Lucy Worsley

Lucy Worsley’s pretty awesome, by the way. She’s the curator of the Royal Palaces in London and she writes books about various historical topics and they’re very approachable. She’s also filmed companion television series to go along with many of the books and they’re really good, too. She’s very charming and quirky and cheeky and very likeable. She makes history very interesting, bringing out it’s human side rather than just parading dusty dates and relics. On the Austen topic, there is also an article written by Lucy for the Guardian on Jane Austen and an interview with History Extra as well.

Various other writers have also submitted their opinions on which is their favourite Austen Novel, published in the Guardian here.

I haven’t read all of Austen’s books and I think probably I should. I’ve never been a FANatic fan but I *have* enjoyed the ones I’ve read and it’s likely time for a reread. The ebooks are free to download because they’re outside the copyright limits. Project Gutenberg (a great site to get free ebook versions of classic novels) will have them but you should also be able to get them via Amazon Kindle or other ebook retailers though some of them will still try to charge you for some electronic versions so be persistent. I may even lend an ear to an audiobook version via the library.

Are you a fan of Jane Austen? If so, what is your favourite of the books (or movies)?

Lucy Worsley on Twitter
Jane Austen Centre in Bath

Review: The Only Cafe – Linden McIntyre

2017:63
4 of 5 stars
Published 2017

Pierre Cormier, a Lebanese native who immigrated to in Nova Scotia in 1982 disappeared, presumed dead  5 years ago when his boat exploded. He was finally declared dead and his son, Cyril, starts to unravel the secrets that his father kept about his past.  His father wanted his life celebrated with a roast at an out of the way pub called The Only Cafe. The only non-familiar name on the provided guest list is Ari, a regular at the pub. As Cyril begins to delve into the past of the man he never knew well, we also find out about Peter from flashbacks to Peter’s life, to traumatic events in Lebanon during wartime in the 70s and 80s and to the early millennium where “current” events in Peter’s life start to trigger long repressed memories of those events. Cyril is working for a national news network and his personal investigation may have ties to an ongoing one at work.

Who is Ari? Did Pierre and Ari know each other back in the day? Ari plays things very close to his chest as does Pierre but they have similar shared experiences. There are truths and a lot of lies and a very tangled web. Cyril might find out more than he expected or nothing at all, not really. The ending is as murky as the politics which is probably the point. It’s more important to accept what’s happened and move on, once you get to that understanding.

Linden McIntyre is an excellent writer who builds a world and weaves a plot with skill. His plots are dramatic and his characters jump off the pages. They are real and they are intriguing and the plot points build up and are revealed at just the right speed. You keep coming back for more. The most interesting parts of the book, for me, were those from Pierre’s point of view, telling his story and experiences in the civil war in Lebanon. Not very uplifting but some of the events are based on actual ones which lends a touch of reality, grounding the plot a bit more.

Thanks to Netgalley for the ARC
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Review: Electric Shadows of Shanghai – Clare Kane

2017:62
4 of 5 stars
Published 2015

Will and Amelia are living in Shanghai in 1931. Will is attached to the British Consulate doing translation work. Shanghai is a city full of temptation and excitement, lit up by neon but the shadows contain the dark side of the city.  Will is soon drawn in to the nightlife. He becomes obsessed and infatuated with a married Chinese silent film star, Wu Feifei, who has ambitious dreams of Hollywood. Amelia is left to her own devices and finds her place at a small ballet company run by an ex-patriot Russian, with most of the other dancers also ex-Russians who survive by working as taxi dancers and prostitutes. As the Japanese aggression makes inroads into China with war imminent, and the Communists start to take hold of the younger student population, Will and Amelia and Feifei all get in over their heads.

I really found drawn in by the descriptions of the city of Shanghai, exotic and fascinating. It’s not a period in history I am familiar with so it was very interesting to read about the culture and the atmosphere. Not all the characters are likeable but they are all well written as is the dialogue. There are themes of betrayal, obsession, and it’s kind of like watching a train crash, seeing all the characters heading for probable disaster. Overall, an enjoyable read.

Thanks to Netgalley for a copy of the book for review.

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