Review: The Manticore – Robertson Davies

2017:85
2 of 5 stars
Published 1972

I read a few books by some newer Canadian authors over the summer. Now it’s time to go back to some of the classic Canadian writers like Robertson Davies. I avoided him for many years, thinking he would not be very interesting and perhaps when I was younger, I wouldn’t have appreciated him anyway. Last year, I read Fifth Business, the first of his Deptford Trilogy. The Manticore is the second of the three. Davies’ characters are really well drawn, interesting. I remember thinking after reading Fifth Business that I wasn’t so keen on the main character but all of the others that he encountered in his “life” fairly leaped off the page.

This book continues with a character, David Staunton, who was a minor character in Fifth Business who is also from the town of Deptford. I wasn’t too keen on him, either. After the death of David’s father, “Boy” Staunton, David retreats to Switzerland to enter treatment with a Jungian psychiatrist to figure out his relationship with his father and how it affected his life. Thus we return to his earlier life and experiences and follow them through as David gets to grips with who he is.

The Jungian psychoanalysis side was a hard slog for me so there were parts where I found it difficult to concentrate. And as was the case in Fifth Business, the characters David encounters in his life are more interesting than David himself. His father might have kept him on a short leash, but David was still a spoiled rich kid with a major sense of entitlement. He is a spoiled, rich adult too. I found the book a struggle to get through.

Davies is a very good writer and he ties things all together well. His books are not light and fluffy nor would you want them to be. He tells a good story and his characters are all well written. I only rate the book lower than I might have because I find it difficult to get on with a book where I find the main character uninteresting and I also didn’t enjoy all the analysis bits. It’s ok if I dislike a character because that’s often the intent of the author. But I found David to be far too self absorbed and had no charm or mischief in him. I suppose that also was the intent and I should take in the overall story and I did, which is why I didn’t give up on the book half way through like I thought about doing. It did keep getting pushed to the bottom of the pile, though and it took awhile to get to the end. I’m glad I got through it but I’m also glad to see the end of it, if you get my drift.

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Review: Bellevue Square – Michael Redhill

2017:84
4 of 5 stars
Published September 2017

Bellevue Square is one of the books on the shortlist for this year’s Scotiabank Giller prize and one of the ones I thought I would like to read in advance of the award. The CanadianContent Goodreads group also picked this for the November group read so I was pleased I’d bought it.

Jean Mason owns a bookstore in Toronto and discovers she has a doppelganger, an identical “twin” who frequents nearby Kensington Market. She starts spending time in the neighbourhood, hanging out in the park (Bellevue Square) and getting to know some of the locals in her quest to find the double. She, a married mother of two, becomes obsessed and pays some of the park regulars who mostly tend to be from the unfortunate side of life (drug addicts, people with mental illnesses) to help her search. Several people she’s come in contact with turn up dead or missing and Jean herself may end up being blamed. Who is the double and what does she want?

As she becomes more and more obsessed, we discover things in Jean’s past that start to make her an unreliable narrator. The story is an exploration of mental illness and brings you to the point where you’re not sure who or what’s real and who or what isn’t. By the end of the book, you might feel like your mind has really been messed with. I’m still not quite sure who was what but the book was so well woven together that I found myself somewhat horrified at what was going on and trying to figure out what was all in her head and was any of it true. But unlike a badly written book, this kind of confusion just makes me say “Whoah”.

It was different, I’ll give it that much!

 

Review: Practical Magic – Alice Hoffman

2017:83
5 of 5 stars
Published in 2017

In the book Practical Magic, we met middle aged unmarried  sisters, Franny and Jet Owens who are witches from a centuries-long line of Owens witches. The Rules of Magic takes a step back into their history and tells their story right up to about where Practical Magic starts (I think, I haven’t read it but I plan to, now!)

It is New York and the year is 1960. JFK is about to be elected and the civil rights movement is underway. Life is changing for the Owens siblings, too. Sussanah Owens sets out a long list of rules for her three children to follow, knowing they are all special and knowing it will get them in trouble. She’s pretty much just holding off the inevitable. She knows, because she’s been there.

Franny and Jet and their brother Vincent spend the summer in Massachussetts with their Aunt Isabel who acquaints them with the Owens family curse. You cannot fall in love or tragedy will follow. As magic becomes a bigger part of their lives, they test the curse and find out the hard way how it has to be for them as we follow them all through the turbulent 60s for the bulk of the book and then over the next 25 years to where Practical Magic starts.

I really like Alice Hoffman’s books.  This book had a great feel for the decade of the 60s where the main story takes place, and a wonderful way to bring the reader to the heart of magic with details and descriptions that made it all feel real. The characters are all shown to be complex and relatable. The scene shifts between New York, small town Massachussetts and California.  The story is about finding out who you are and accepting that when your family is cursed, it’s probably better not to tempt fate. It’s also about love because what is life without it? Maybe the two are incompatible. Or maybe they are if you’re an Owens with imagination.

Thanks to Netgalley for a review copy.

Review: The Watch that Ends the Night – Hugh MacLennan

2017: 82
3.5 of 5 stars
Published 1959

This is the final book I needed to read to complete my 2017 Bingo Reading Challenge “Card”! The square called for a book published in the year you were born (or decade if you couldn’t find something). That gives me a few months to research books that might work for next year’s Bingo challenge!

George Stewart is married to Catherine, the love of his life whose health is precarious due to a heart condition. But she was married to a man before him, a man who became his best friend, Dr. Jerome Martell. Jerome went missing in WWII, presumed dead in a POW camp. But Jerome has returned to Montreal and the apple cart is upset.

The story then retreats into the pasts of all three characters to bring t heir stories from the 1930s right up to the early 1950s when the story began. George became a third wheel in the relationship between Catherine and Jerome and was a good family friend to them both up to when Jerome left Montreal to take his medical skills to the Spanish Civil War.   Montreal in the 1930s was crackling with politics, with the Spanish war between the Fascists and Communists firing imaginations worldwide. George then has to deal with the huge impact that Jerome’s return has caused. I did find that the narrative got dragged down by too much philosophy near the end. I don’t think it really added to the story much, just gave the author a chance to express his own views on the world and the individual.

It’s the story of relationships, friendship, politics, families, love, survival and loyalties. The characters are interesting and the dynamics between them are written very realistically. I’m reading this book nearly 60 years after it was written, but it doesn’t feel dated at all.

Review: Mansfield Park – Jane Austen

2017:81
4 of 5 stars
Published in 1814

The next in my effort to read all of Jane Austen is Mansfield Park. This is the story of Fanny Price, one of the many children of a younger of three sisters, the one that married for love and now struggles to feed the children and pay the bills. Because she married against her family’s better judgment, she has had no contact with her sisters for many years but reaches out to ask for help in desperation. The other two sisters decide they should take on one of the older children, a daughter, and so they do. This is Fanny, of course, who is moved away from her home and beloved brother William to Mansfield Park where her aunt and uncle, the Baronet and Lady Bertram reside.

Fanny is homesick and miserable but makes friends with the younger of the two sons, Edmund, who treats her affectionately and looks out for her, at least some of the time. The two Bertram sisters more or less leave her to her own devices most of the time. Fanny is generally treated all right but is never allowed to forget she’s not their equal, a poor relation dependent on them, and is kept in the background, running errands and keeping her aunt company for her keep but Fanny is a quiet girl and seems happy enough. Things change when she’s about 17 and new neighbours, the Crawfords, Mary and her brother Henry, move to the area.

Talk about setting the cat among the pigeons! There are romantic entanglements, jealousy, scandal, and flirtatious games being played. Through it all, Fanny watches with an objective eye, the Crawfords are “society” and are shallow and insincere, they corrupt those around them but only Fanny seems to see it. She stays true to herself even when she is rejected and banished as ungrateful but never fear, Fanny gets her happy ending.

I like Mansfield Park a lot. Most of the characters are great fun, in that they’re not all upstanding, honest and stout hearted. Many are by and large devious, haughty, shallow, naive, self absorbed, shrewd and snobby. They aren’t horrible to Fanny mostly but they never let her forget that she should be grateful for the advantages they have provided for her and very surprised when she is shown to have integrity and a mind of her own, as most of Jane Austen’s heroines have, even if some of them are easily swayed from the straight and narrow path on occasion.

As with most of Austen’s books, it has been filmed. My favourite is the movie released in 1999 starring Frances O’Connor as Fanny and Jonny Lee Miller as Edmund.

Official trailer here.

Review: The Skin of a Lion – Michael Ondaatje

2017:80
2.5 of 5 stars
Published 1987

I’m not sure what I can say about this book. As far as the prose goes, it’s written beautifully, very lyrical. The plot is a bit loose and felt a bit disconnected for me. It more or less follows Patrick Lewis through much of his life, hopping from childhood to various parts of his adult life, the things he did and the things that happened to him. There didn’t seem to be a lot to connect each section, as far as Patrick’s motivations at times.

It starts with the building of an aquaduct in Toronto in the 1920s. The workers are mainly immigrants. Several nuns stumble onto the unfinished bridge and one falls off, to be rescued by one of the immigrants. Each of the two characters do appear in the book later on but one seems to be only a support character and the identity of the other isn’t revealed for some time. They do have connections to Patrick Lewis who gets involved in other industrial projects that build the city including tunnels under the lake.

He also gets obsessed with finding a missing millionaire, finds love and affection a couple of times and some of his actions seem to happen for no discernable reason that was obvious to me. But I don’t always pick up on these things and if the story isn’t pulling me in, I tend to skim at times. It didn’t really feel like a story with a beginning, middle and end as such. Apparently, a few of the secondary characters are also in Ondaatje’s The English Patient. I read that a long time ago so I don’t remember aside from one name that sounds familiar.

Don’t take my low-ish rating too much to heart. It might be that I wasn’t in the right mindset to read this. I can appreciate the prose and the flow but it didn’t feel like a “story” to me.

Review: Hag-seed – Margaret Atwood

2017: 79
5 of 5 stars
Published 2016

I recently blogged about the Hogarth Shakespeare Project, modern writers creating novels retelling some of Shakespeare’s popular works. Hag-Seed is my first foray into an attempt to read all of them. Hag-Seed is a retelling of The Tempest and one of Canada’s top star writers, Margaret Atwood is the author.

Felix is the Creative Director of a theatre festival similar to the well known Stratford Festival in Ontario but his visions for his productions are definitely unusual and edgy. He is unceremoniously fired just as he was about to put on a production of The Tempest and his assistant has usurped his position. The other thing you need to know about Felix is that his small daughter, Miranda (named after the Tempest character) died a few months before the start of the book and he is completely devastated. Felix simmers alone in a rented shack for a few years with his memories, ghosts and anger then finds himself teaching theatre to inmates in a prison while biding his time plotting his revenge against those that brought him down. All the pieces fall into place eventually and he moves ahead with his plans while putting forth a production of, you guessed it, the Tempest!

As in The Tempest, Prospero/Felix gets his revenge, Miranda finds her Ferdinand, bygones are allowed to be bygones, spirits are freed. The story continues after the night the play is performed, because Felix has to be set free just as Prospero must be.

It’s an interesting take on the original. The characters don’t all mirror the ones in the play but the themes, revenge, grief and perhaps madness, certainly do apply here.  Leave it to Ms. Atwood to turn the tale on its ear so well! If the rest of the Hogarth series is as good as this one, it will be a real treat to read through them.