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

Science Fiction and Fantasy week

While perusing Goodreads, I noticed they have a blog post calling this week the Science Fiction and Fantasy week where they’re focusing on books of those genres, also called “Speculative Fiction”. Oh, why not! I like Scifi and Fantasy though, probably, I’d lean more towards Fantasy. It’s not my genre of choice but I do like it now and then. These types of stories might be traced back to the great Jules Verne. There were probably speculative fiction books before him but he made it popular.

Science Fiction tends to be more focused on science and technology, what’s possible now and what may be possible in the future where Fantasy focuses on even more imaginative characters and plots. Dystopian fiction generally tells tales of the world after a major catastrophe,a pandemic, a political takeover, an Apocalypse, “the end of the world as we know it” and describes the survivors’ stories. Margaret Atwood generally considers her books to be speculative fiction, saying “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen.”

Very often, writers of all of these genres tend to tell their stories over a series of books…3, 5, 10, 20 books all about the same world or same set of characters. That’s becoming popular in other genres now, as well, particularly in series about crime fighters or generational epics. One author in particular that comes to mind is Sir Terry Pratchett and his Discworld series. There are over 40, the last one published after he passed away in 2015.

Canadian authors aren’t the first ones you’d think of when you consider Science Fiction/Fantasy but there are a few. Guy Gavriel Kay, William Gibson, Emily St. John Mandell (her dystopian novel, Station Eleven, did very well, with nominations and wins for a number of awards), Cory Doctorow, Madeline Ashby (born in L.A. but living in Toronto),  and Robert J. Sawyer.

The big name in Canadian Literature, of course, is Margaret Atwood who has written several speculative (dystopian) fiction novels, best known for The Handmaid’s Tale. But she’s also got a trilogy called MaddAddam (Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, MaddAddam) which is very much worth reading. The disaster in that set is a pandemic virus. There’s a list of Canadian authors here on Wikipedia and there’s SF Canada.org for lots of information on Canadian writers in these and similar genres (horror, paranormal, etc.)

Although it’s not my primary “go to” genre, I do like it. It’s a hugely popular genre but there are far too many authors to list them all here.  I’ll mention a few I’ve enjoyed over the years in addition to Atwood.

I think my first exposure to Sci. Fi. was Robert A. Heinlen. I read a few of his early novels though I don’t really remember much of the stories now. I also picked up a couple of classics by Issac Asimov back in the day, mainly the Robot ones.

I think I would have to point to Anne McCaffrey for my all time favourite fantasy author because I’ve read quite a few of her books, both her science fiction ones and her fantasy ones, especially the Pern planet series that have dragons. Dragons! They are all “good” dragons, too. I haven’t read many of the recent ones co-written with her son in the few years before she died. (Here’s a great list of the reading order of the Pern series, an excellent and quite handy website that puts book series in order)

Neil Stephenson is another author that I’ve liked. His huge, chunky books tend to be more of a variety of types but he has written some science fiction which I’ve liked including, recently, Seveneves. In other fantasy novels, I’ve enjoyed a few by Neil Gaiman and some of Stephen King’s novels probably fall under the “fantasy” moniker though his books tend more to the horror than not. I never got on well with Tolkein, I will admit. I have read the Game of Thrones books by George R. R. Martin and while I liked the stories, I do find him a bit long winded for my taste. I do have good intentions of reading Guy Gavriel Kay. The descriptions of his books sound very good.

My husband really enjoys Terry Pratchett’s books. I’ve read the Hogfather but that’s as far as I got. I’ve read a couple by Naomi Novik and quite liked those as well. She does a series of what is a mash up of historical fiction and fantasy, the “Temeraire” books. They have dragons, too!

YA (Young Adult) books in these genres are a bit hit and miss for me. I joined the crowd and read the Hunger Games and the Divergent trilogies and liked them quite a bit and  once I finally decided to read the Harry Potter novels, I discovered that I really enjoyed them a lot.

Then there’s Steampunk. I’m not sure where that fits in but I like to think it leans closer to the Fantasy realm. I like some of that as well.

I must also put in a plug for a book by a good friend of mine,  Gatekeeper by John Beresford, a UK author. I really enjoyed this book which has elements of both science fiction and fantasy,  and I believe it’s still available on Kindle.

Are you a fan of Science Fiction, Fantasy or Dystopian novels? Have you got any recommendations?

 

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)

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.

#20BooksOfSummer

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.

#20BooksOfSummer

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.