Review: The Town that Drowned – Riel Nason

2017:71
4.5 of 5 stars
Published 2011

Ruby Carson falls through the ice while skating and has a vision as she nearly drowns. She sees her small town and 4 people under water and now everyone thinks she’s as weird as they think her brother is. But then surveyors come to town and the fate of it is to be sealed and flooded for a huge dam. The novel is a bit “coming of age” and a bit about having your home taken away. It takes place in the mid 1960s.

I really enjoyed this book. Ruby as a shy 14 – 16 year old, her interactions with the neighbours and her family are very real. Her younger brother, Percy, would be diagnosed as autistic today but that wasn’t known then. You just had an “odd” child and learned how to work with his need for everything to be the same all the time and how to handle his meltdowns when things changed. Percy is written with a very sympathetic and gentle characterization. We know he’s not weird, he’s just unique and though his mother is more understanding, we also see her worry and frustration and his confounded father’s anger at not having a son like everyone else’s. Ruby is outcast by her peers as well due to her vision which kind of turns out to be true. But the family and their close friends are people I’d like to know.

What’s very interesting is that this story is inspired by real events. There really is a Mactaquac Dam that was built in the mid 60s and the nearby towns were relocated before the flooding. A new planned town, a bridge and a pulp and paper mill were built. This book imagines what the impact would be on the ordinary people that lived in one of the villages that were flooded.

I’m nearly done with my Cross Canada Reading Challenge. This book covers the province of New Brunswick, with just one more province and one territory left to “read”.

Review: Holding Still for as Long as Possible – Zoe Whittall

2017:70
3.5 of 5 stars
Published 2009

This was selected by my Goodreads Canadian Content group as the monthly group read for August, in conjunction with our monthly challenge to read books about LGBTQ characters or written by LGBTQ authors. I was happy that my library hold came through in time to read it for the group read and challenge.

The story follows a group of twenty something friends in Toronto as they try to figure out what they’re going to do with their lives, something a lot of people that age struggle with.  Josh is a transgender male who is a paramedic and we get a lot of inside info on what kind of toll that can take on the EMTs who save lives on a daily, or, in Josh’s case, nightly basis. Amy is his girlfriend, bisexual and a filmmaker. Hillary, who now calls herself Billy, used to be a famous pop star but is now struggling with severe panic attacks. Roxy seems to be the glue that holds them all together, the mutual friend that they all met through. Josh and Amy’s relationship is falling apart and Billy’s just broken up with her long term girlfriend.

There are new crushes, old loves, and people are just trying to figure it all out. The sexuality of the characters is secondary to the story, really. It is what it is. It doesn’t seem like the lives of these gay/trans characters are any different than others in the same generation, all facing adulthood, still not really settled into responsibility for the most part, Josh aside, who has a very responsible job but still, his personal  life is in upheaval. The story, the friendships, the getting-on-with-things, and that last push to full on adulthood, that’s what it’s about.

I did like the book and the story told from mainly three points of view, Josh, Billy and Amy. From my point of view, someone old enough to be a parent of any of these characters, it was a little harder to relate to them. My twenties were a lot more stable though they did end in divorce. It was a quick read and the second of Zoe Whittall’s I have read. I will be reading more from her.

Review: The Conjoined – Jen Sookfong Lee

2017:69
2.5 of 5 stars
Published 2016

Jessica’s mother has just died and she’s helping her father clear out the house. In one of the freezers in the basement, her father discovers a body and it turns out, there’s another body in the other freezer. Now there’s a shocker to start off a novel! Jessica’s mother, Donna,  took in foster children. There were two young teenage sisters that lived there for a short time in 1988 but who disappeared and these bodies appear to be those girls. What happened to them? Did Donna kill them and hide them all these years? Jessica finds it difficult to reconcile the mother she knew with that theory.

The novel looks back on the girls’ family history as well as Donna’s as Jessica digs down into the past to search out the truth. She ends up learning more about her mother and herself in the process.

I liked the book, though didn’t love it. Some of the flashback bits were told more than once, each with a bit more detail from a different point of view but I found that dragged a bit. It felt a bit unfocused at times. The ending really wasn’t quite as satisfying as I thought it would be, with the conclusion of the mystery left up to your imagination and assumption. There was no answer to how the teens were killed and the “why” might be assumed if you assume the identity of the one that did it. I did like the story in general and I liked the Vancouver setting.  It wasn’t that bad and it was a quick read but I felt let down a bit by the ending.

 

Review – Lost in September by Kathleen Winter

2017:68
4 of 5 stars
Published 2017

I read Annabel by Kathleen Winter and it was a beautiful, sad and pretty much awesome book so I was excited to see she had a new one coming out. I received an electronic copy from Netgalley and got stuck in. Lost in September is very, very different from Annabel. It’s about a young ex-soldier who just happens to be a dead ringer for General James Wolfe, who died in 1759 at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City. He also apparently has Wolfe’s memories. Somehow, he seems to be the same man or a reincarnation, perhaps. Or maybe he’s just a soldier with PTSD and has retreated into history to survive.

The original Wolfe, as a younger soldier, was about to have leave in Paris but in September of 1752, Britain dropped their calendar and joined the rest of Christian Europe, adopting the Gregorian calendar. It meant that everyone lost 12 days, jumping from September 2 to 14 overnight and Wolfe lost his leave. He’s resented that for, well, centuries and is in modern day Montreal trying to recoup those lost days. Through the modern day Jimmy, we relive Wolfe’s past, his relationships with his parents and friends and key events in his life. He returns to Montreal each year in September, the anniversary of both the missing leave days and the anniversary of Wolf’s death, camping out or living in a mens’ shelter. Montreal would seem to be the closest thing to Paris he can manage as he tries to get those lost days back. The present day Jimmy leans on the kindness of friends such as a historical researcher studying his old letters, someone whom he met in a library in Toronto. Little by little, Jimmy’s own past starts to permeate his “Wolfe” memories.

It all sounds a bit strange yet it’s compelling as well. The book is tagged as a “reimagining of history”. Winter has done a lot of research on Wolfe and added her own spin to the man and his private life, personal thoughts and “memories”.

Review: Crimes Against My Brother – David Adams Richards

2017:
2 of 5 stars
Published 2013

It’s not often that I can’t finish a book. It used to be that I would stick with almost any book to the bitter end but these days, I have decided that there are too many good books to read and if I’m not enjoying one, I won’t finish it. This was one of those. I managed about 40% before I couldn’t take any more.

David Adams Richards’ books are not easy to read. They’re dark, violent and grim, full of anger and resentment,  at least the two that I’ve read are, taking place in rural New Brunswick with the themes of poverty and struggle at the core. I opened the book to continue reading at one point and within the first half page, one man remembered his father blackening both of his eyes and a paragraph later, his boss was making him do repossessions and stealing odds and ends from those respossessees just because he could. Sheesh.

In this book there are three friends who pledge to be blood brothers but the vow is soon broken by perceived betrayal and the friends drift apart. Each struggles with their lives, each has dreams for their future and with every success, of which there are damn few, comes another failure in the end, often at the hands of a man who has the money and control over much of the area. Manipulation, control, resentment, anger, back stabbing,  it’s all there. It’s well written but can be a struggle to get there. None of the characters are happy, none of them …

If you like “gritty”, you’ll probably like this and his other books. He’s a very good writer, so he does get 2 stars, but I think I’m done with this author. Two books that I didn’t particularly enjoy is enough for me. Just not my thing. I’m publishing the review though not counting it as “read” for 2017. It was one of my Cross Canada books, for New Brunswick but I guess I’ll have to find something else to put in that slot if I can, before the end of August when the challenge ends.

Review – Persuasion by Jane Austen

2017: 67
4 of 5 stars
Published in 1814

I never read Jane Austen’s books when I was younger. What sparked my interest, along with a lot of others’, was after watching the British mini series Pride and Prejudice including *that* scene, you know the one, Colin Firth popping out of a pond after a swim, standing there, soaked to the skin in a white shirt. Yes. I also loved another BBC production, Persuasion that featured rugged Ciaran Hinds as Captain Wentworth. Let’s not forget Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility. If you’re spotting a trend here, you won’t be far wrong.

But whatever it was that lured me to pick up the original material, it was worth it. I quite enjoyed the Jane Austen books I read. With some classic books, I find the language a bit difficult to process in my modern brain. Dickens mystifies me. Jane Austen is much easier to read and her “old fashioned” turn of phrase comes across as elegant. I have decided to reread the ones I’ve already read and finish the set of all her novels. There aren’t that many, she only lived a short life. Can you imagine what she would have produced if she’d lived even just 10 or 20 years longer than her final age of 42? This year is the 200th anniversary of her death so there’s been a lot of publicity around. What better time to undertake this reading project?

So the first novel out of the gate is Persuasion which was published in 1818 after her death. It is the story of Anne Elliott and her family. Anne had fallen in love with a sailor, Frederick Wentworth, seven years before at the age of 19 and they were engaged to be married but her  father, older sister and, primarily, a family friend, Lady Russell,  interfered and persuaded Anne to break off the engagement. Wentworth was not from a family of good background and he was not rich. It just would not do. Anne never married though her younger sister did. The family’s finances have been sinking lower and lower since the death of Anne’s mother, now no longer there to prevent her Baronet father from living beyond his means. Lady Russell has been consulted and in turn has consulted Anne who has been running the home and they have devised a plan.

Kellynch Hall will be let out and they will rent cheaper rooms in Bath. The Napoleonic wars have recently ended and Kellynch Hall has been let by an Admiral Croft and his wife, Sophie. Lo and behold, Captain Frederick Wentworth is Sophie’s brother and he has returned from the war a rich man. These are the days when officers and sailors alike can still profit from war.  It’s clear that Anne still loves him and if he still has feelings for her, he does not act on them, still resentful of her allowing her family to persuade her to break off with him.

Anne’s family moves through society,  with long suffering Anne preferring a quieter life so she tends to stay in the background when she can, avoiding the apparent resentful and accusatory glares of Wentworth whenever possible. The heir to Kellynch Hall, William Elliott,  has also reappeared and may be looking for a wife. Anne’s sister Mary’s two sisters-in-law are also anxious to be married and one of them seems to have caught the eye of Wentworth.

Anne herself is generally taken for granted by her family, dismissed by them when they think of her at all and used by them when they need her to do something. She is not beautiful like her older sister nor married with children like her younger one though her younger sister, Mary,  does show more love to Anne even if Mary’s selfish side that depends on Anne’s generosity for child minding and help in the home.  Anne does not have the skills to shine in society and lives a quiet life though that may not be what her heart truly desires. She seems to have an adventurous soul but for women, that’s not an easy dream to follow in those days.

Will Anne and Wentworth finally reconcile their past and make a future together? What do you think?! It’s not really a spoiler to say this has a happy ending. All of Austen’s books pretty much do. The girl always gets the man she desires. (SPOILER)  Anne and Wentworth’s reconciliation comes after a romantic letter about the fidelity of the hearts of men wherein Frederick declares himself to Anne.

Jane Austen could write about Society with all it’s rules, banality and put-on airs and graces and nails it firmly through her own real-life observations. She has a sharp humour woven through the narrative and quite clearly a romantic heart.

Family tree for the characters of Persuasion, courtesy of Wikipedia. Click on the photo for a larger view

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.

#20BooksOfSummer
Cross Canada Reading Challenge (Manitoba)