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)

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: 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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Review: Alone in the Classroom – Elizabeth Hay

2017:61
2.5 of 5 stars
Published 2011

Connie was a teacher in small town Saskatchewan where she encountered Parley Burns, the school principal who was an unsettling man. A young girl dies in a fire after an encounter with him, never specified but certainly implied, and Connie leaves the Prairies to become a reporter in the Ottawa Valley eventually, covering a murder of a young woman and this is where she encounters Burns again. The two deaths are not related. She also meets up again with a former student, Michael Graves, who was struggling with dyslexia (though it wasn’t a known “thing” at the time the book is set, the 1930s).

The book is narrated by Connie’s admiring niece, Anne and that narration kind of makes the book feel like it was at arms’ length from me.

I found the book a bit disjointed, or disconnected for some reason. It didn’t seem to flow very well. One review on Goodreads that I read called it the “Sisterhood of the Travelling Boyfriend” which made me snicker. That’s related to the former student, Michael Graves, I think. I’ve read other reviews that talk about it in glowing terms, with all these subtle meanings and talk of a great romantic triangle which, if you ask me, feels more than a bit dysfunctional. did I say that Anne *really* admires her aunt? She goes to great lengths to be like her and came across a bit needy.

There are examinations of relationships between siblings, parents and children, lovers and friends. It’s very well written but I didn’t connect with it and likely that’s up to me. It won’t put me off reading more of Ms. Hay’s books, though.

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Cross Canada Reading Challenge

Review: Prairie Ostrict – Tamai Kobayashi

2017:60
5 of 5 stars
Published 2013

The Murakami family are the only Japanese-Canadian family in their area of rural southern Alberta in 1974. They run an ostrich farm and the oldest son, Albert, died in a horrible accident not long before the book opens.  Imogene “Egg” Murakami is a precocious 8 year old who loves to read the dictionary and science books for kids. She is bullied at school and finds solace in the local library.

Her mother drowns her grief in a bottle. Her father isolates his out in the barn with the birds. Her older sister Kathy tries to take on the family responsibilities, and  does take care of Egg at home and rouststhe bullies at school, but spends much of her time with her best friend, Stacey, who is more than just a friend. And Kathy is looking to her own future, hoping to win a basketball scholarship and get away from the past though she hates to leave Egg alone.

Nobody seems to be there to help Egg manage her grief while her family falls apart around her.Nobody speaks about Albert or the accident.  Kathy takes over in the mother role with Egg a lot of the time since their mother is mainly incapable. She would read her bedtime stories but change the endings to happy ones which was always going to backfire badly because Egg is not one to be patronized.

Egg is looking for answers about so much but never quite finds the right questions to ask though she can think of lots of questions in her head. Maybe she’s to blame for everything. Maybe God is, but if there’s a God, why do all these awful things happen? We are shown the world from Egg’s point of view and the author captures the mind and imagination of a smart 8 year old really well. We, the readers, can read between the lines of what Egg observes and sees, things she isn’t old enough to always understand. Yet she can also be very insightful in the way that an innocent child can be. The atmosphere of the early 70s with pop culture references is familiar to me since that’s my era, too though I was a bit older than Egg in the 70s.

I loved this book and I loved poor little Egg, struggling to get through each day, in a grieving family, often being beaten up by the bullies, dreaming of fitting in instead of being marked as different. This is a debut novel and it’s insightful, touching, heartbreaking, with a hopeful ending.

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Cross Canada Reading Challenge – Alberta

Review: Twenty-One Cardinals – Jocelyne Saucier

2017:59
4 of 5 stars
Published 2006
Translated from French by Rhonda Mullins

The Cardinal family is reuniting after nearly 30 years. They haven’t all been in the same place at the same time since a tragedy in a local mine tore them apart but the secret behind that tragedy is about to come out after being hidden for so long.

There were 21 children in the family. They were out of control, nearly feral in the town of Norco, a mining town in Quebec, the mine their prospector father discovered. The mine that was ultimately their undoing. Told from the point of view of several of the siblings, we hear about their escapades, their united front, their guilt and how they deal with it as adults, their conspiracy to hide the truth of the  disappearance of one of them from their mother and youngest brother, but the real truth was something none of them saw coming.

The truth of the disappearance is known to the reader through most of the book but the plot doesn’t seem forced or trite. It’s probably a bit unrealistic perhaps, but you believe it. The final twist might not be a surprise by the time you’ve learned more about the missing sister. This is a translated book and the translator’s prose is beautiful. I can only imagine how lovely it might be in the original French.

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