Review: The Chronicles of Avonlea – L. M. Montgomery

2017: 72
4 of 5 stars
Published 1912

Lucy Maud Montgomery is best known for Anne of Green Gables. She wrote many books about Anne Shirley but she also wrote about the Islanders and communities in and around Avonlea where Green Gables is. These are 12 stories about the men, women and children of various communities in the area around Avonlea and Carmody. Anne Shirley even gets name checked or makes a brief appearance now and then but the stories aren’t about her. They’re about an engaged couple that haven’t spoken in 15 years, or a proud old woman who sacrifices to do special things for the daughter of a lost love, or a young lad who has an extraordinary talent for the fiddle or two very different sisters trying to raise a young lad. We get heart warming stories, humourous stories, hopes and dreams all told in the superb prose of Montgomery, never cloyingly sweet or “folksy”, just prose glowing with wit and painting a perfect picture of rural Prince Edward Island and it’s inhabitants.

This book nearly completes my Cross Canada reading challenge. Just one for the Northwest Territories left, that will be “Late Nights on Air” by Elizabeth Hay.

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: 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: 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: 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.

#20BooksOfSummer

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.

#20BooksOfSummer

Cross Canada Reading Challenge – Alberta

Review: Rankin Inlet – Mara Feeney

2017: 56
4 of 5 stars
Published 2009

The author spent a number of years working in various areas of Canada’s Arctic region and territories and some of those years were spent in the village of Rankin Inlet, located on the northwest edge of Hudson Bay. She knows the region and the people well. Thus, this book feels very true.

The story is about Alison Clark, a Liverpudlian nurse who decided to travel to the Canadian north to work for a couple of years in Rankin Inlet and ended up staying for 30 years. The narrative comes from several points of view, not just Alison’s and through those, we learn quite a lot about Inuit culture, the history of how some of the Inuit came to live in these kinds of towns which were founded by companies like Hudson’s Bay Company and various mining and other companies. These towns were shored up and supported by the Canadian Government, a history that would seem to be a relatively common one to many of the Inuit settlements. We learn of their beliefs, spirituality, customs and challenges.

It’s a way of life that intrigues Alison as she settles in,  tries to learn the language, makes friends and even finds love. She marries and has a family and we see the town grow through the eyes of her, her husband, her father-in-law, her brother-in-law and one or two others on occasion. This tells the story from different points of view, where the culture clashes with her own background.  For non-Inuit who are not born and raised here, it is often difficult to survive in such an environment let alone thrive. The weather alone is forbidding and the isolation can be difficult but some really do thrive and come to love the land and it’s people as Alison does. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t manage it but it’s fascinating to read and become part of it for awhile.

As with many books that cover a spread of time, the first half of the book is more detailed, while the second half jumps through the years more quickly with catch up entries from the diaries, letters and thoughts of the characters as the north moves towards becoming a new territory, Nunvut, and the old ways fade away as the settlements become towns and even cities. This is progress. It may or may not be a good thing. Struggles to survive off the land may not be there anymore, but the corruption of progress can have devastating effects, too.

It’s interesting to see how some of the children in the family grow up and leave, embracing the modern world and some, while being used to the “modern conveniences” and technology, still look to their heritage to fulfill their lives and livelihoods.

It’s not a traditional happy ending or a sad one, there’s no real event to end the book. The books ends on a “circle of life” or “life goes on” kind of philosophy.

#8 of  #20BooksOfSummer

Cross Canada Reading Challenge: Nunavut