Review: The Next Sure Thing – Richard Wagamese

2017:54
4 of 5 stars
Published September 2011

In this novella, Wagamese introduces us to Cree Thunderboy. Cree is a blues musician with big dreams. He also has a knack of being able to pick a good horse at the racetrack. This does not go unnoticed. He meets Win Hardy who hires him to make him money and in exchange, he’ll sponsor his music career. Such are Cree’s dreams that he’s initially willing to shove the alarms ringing in his and his best friend’s head into the cone of silence because he is ambitious and confident in his talent. It’s pretty clear soon enough that he’s signed a deal with the devil. Hardy is connected to all the wrong people and if Cree steps one foot out of place, he could lose that foot. Quite literally. He needs a plan to find Hardy’s achilles heel and bring Hardy down by using it against him. Cree is a gambler. This might not end well but if it pays off, he’ll be free of Hardy and he’ll live to see another day.

Short but sweet, this story is fast paced and fun. Gambling may be fun and a real rush when you win but when you lose, boy oh boy, you sure can lose everything and then some! Wagamese had a way of bringing his realistic characters leaping off the page. The story might be a bit silly, a bit like a “zany romp”, but if you’re a fan of Richard Wagamese’s work, you’ll enjoy it.

Review: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

2017:51
4 of 5 stars
Published April 1997

This takes place at the southern part of India and is about the family of fraternal twins Estha and Rahel (brother and sister). The family members include multiple generations, both colourful and tragic. It is told in two timelines, from the adult twins and looking back to 1969 when their uncle’s English ex-wife and his daughter come home to India after the death of the ex’s second husband. The family is very much looking forward to the arrival, especially of the daughter, Sophie Mol. Then something happens and all of their lives are turned around.

I found the book hard to get into at first but after the first chapter, it settled down and made more sense. The twins’ family was contentious, with an alcoholic and abusive father. Their mother, Ammu, took her children and left him, returning home to her family to face their disapproval (for the divorce) from there on. Her parents, Mammachi and Pappachi and brother Chacko  lived in the family home along with Baby Kochamma, who was the sister of Mammachi, she’s referred to as a grandaunt. (great aunt?) She is an especially nasty piece of work due to her own personal unhappiness with her own life, and is really awful and vindictive towards ammu. Sophie Mol is known early on in the book to have died but it’s not revealed how until late in the book.

The story hook is “Things can change in a day” and they do, more than once.  The story is told mainly from the twins’ point of view, twins that are very close to each other, almost to the exclusion of anyone else and they are the only ones that can help each other. The language is lovely and liquid with interesting two-words-together descriptions and the children are often referred to as “two-egg twins”. The descriptions are very beautiful but at times, I felt went on and on a bit much. How many different descriptive ways can one describe a garden as someone is walking through it? Several pages of it on my eReader. Get on with the story! But the story is compelling, more and more so as you get further into it.

This book won the Booker Prize in 1997.

Review: Barney’s Version by Mordecai Richler

2017: 52
4.5 of 5 stars
Published 1997

This is the second book I’ve read by one of Canada’s esteemed authors. Richler has been publishing successful novels since the late 1950s. I previously read The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and enjoyed it and I chose Barney’s Version for my second Richler. The story is about the life of Barney Panofsky as told by his good self, a man in his late 60s whose health and memory are both precarious and whose freedom is in some doubt. He may or may not have murdered his old friend, Boogie, 30 years ago and though he was deemed innocent by a jury of his peers, the scandal and doubt hangs over him like an Atlantic fog. The body was never found, m’lud, so there was no murder is Barney’s defence. We do find out what happened at the end of the book.

Anyway, he’s writing his autobiography that centers around each of his three wives, one of whom doesn’t even get named. The book is sectioned off by each wife but don’t think that means the story is told in any sort of alignment. It’s all over the place, with anecdotes and his personal history told as it occurs to him in random order as one thing reminds him of the next and you’re not even sure he’s remembering incidents correctly. He also revisits some of the incidents as need be. His life is filled with crises and scrapes, and he’s not portrayed as all that sympathetic a character nor is he portrayed as a scallywag that the reader treats indulgently. He makes bad judgments and choices, he drinks, he curses, he’s obnoxious,  he has more failures than triumphs, and you wonder how his children and friends can stand him at all though most of them do seem to keep him at arms’ length.

I guess I can’t relate to Barney that well but it doesn’t take away from Richler’s talent at bringing the characters off the page. His humour is dark and cutting, his observations on life’s aspects are as jaded as the characters but spot on.  I have to say I found it a bit more difficult to like at first but it soon hit its stride and carried me along for the ride.

There has been a movie made of this starring Paul Giamatti, released in 2010 and it’s quite a good film, particularly because it puts the events of the novel in their proper order! Duddy Kravitz gets name checked and makes a few brief appearances, now a grownup and it appears he’s as successful as he always planned. The Gursky name also gets a mention which probably relates to Richler’s book, Solomon Gursky Was Here.  I think I will come back to Mordecai Richler again.

Not one of my #20BooksOfSummerChallenge because I started it about a month ago but I am going to use this for my Cross Canada Challenge for Quebec.

Review: Ava Comes Home by Lesley Crewe

2017: 50
3.5 of 5 stars
Published 2008

Ava Harris, aka Libby MacKinnon, is an Oscar winning actress who must come home to Glace Bay, Cape Breton (Nova Scotia) when she finds out her mother is dying. She has not been home in the 10 years since she left,  and when she left, it was sudden and secret, leaving behind her childhood sweetheart. Something obviously happened to send her running, something she never told her family or her boyfriend Seamus, and when she returns home, she must face it and the boy she left behind.

This is a fairly routine story in that you pretty much can predict how it’s going to go and that it’ll have a happy ending. The incident that Libby/Ava ran from is revealed a little over half way through but there’s still a twist which I didn’t see coming.

Lesley Crewe gives us good characters and dialogue and it’s set in my home province. I “know” lots of people like these lovely “Capers” (Cape Bretoners). Salt of the earth. I know the references to shops, locations, etc. For me,  because of these things, it’s a very relatable book.

Another book for my Cross Canada Reading Challenge, Nova Scotia and one for #20BooksOfSummer

Review: Baygirl – Heather Smith

2017:47
3 of 5 stars
Published 2010

Kit Ryan lives in an outport fishing village in Newfoundland. She’s 16 and it’s 1992 and life is difficult when your father is an alcoholic. It’s a life of being on an emotional roller coaster, never knowing what kind of drunk your father is today or how he’s going to react to any given statement or situation. Kit has a lifelong best friend and takes refuge with her grandmother often.

But the cod fishing industry is dying and with a government moratorium, Kit’s father can’t work and the family moves to St. John’s to live with Uncle Iggy who’s unemployed himself, sunk into depression and grief. Kit doesn’t fit in at school and things are no better at home. But there is an older Yorkshireman who lives next door who is always ready with a teapot. She does make a friend at school and there’s even a boy that likes her. The problem is, Kit has to learn to accept her father as he is and find a way to trust.

It’s a short novel and doesn’t go very deep into the issues behind the issues other than a brief look into her father’s background near the end. Kit’s got a lot of anger as you might expect and it’s clear that in some ways it holds her back. She spends a lot of energy pushing back against things she has no way of controlling or changing. By the time she begins to reconcile her feelings, it might be too late. There could have been a bit more depth to the story and relationships between Kit and her parents but there’s enough there to tell the story.

The next door neighbour is a bit of a stereotype with plenty of Yorkshire slang and “ee by gum”.  The nice boy dates the school bitch and sees the light pretty quickly. Having Kit around seems to lift Uncle Iggy up and give him a reason to clean himself up and find reasons to want to live his life again. A return to her home village 6 months after leaving finds all her friends changed completely, even her best friend which felt a bit extreme to me. Now she doesn’t fit in at her old home or her new one.

Overall, an ok story but it could have been better. I may not be the generation this book is intended for but that shouldn’t matter. Or maybe it does. I make this sound more negative than I should, I think. I did like it, but I would have liked a bit more of it.

Review: The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

2017: 45
4 of 5 stars
Published January 2013

Don Tillman is a professor of genetics and he really knows his business. He’s single, 40,  and does not make friends easily. In fact, he only has two, and one of those is an elderly lady who is now in a senior citizen home. He has decided, however, that it’s time he finds a wife and in order to screen the candidates properly, comes up with a long and detailed questionnaire to filter out all unsuitable candidates.

Enter Rosie. Sent to him by his other friend, Gene, Rosie is most certainly unsuitable but she’s mainly there to ask his help in finding her biological father. The Wife Project is set aside for The Father Project and they spend a lot of time together. Don is not your ordinary man and has challenges. He’s very clearly living with Asperger’s Syndrome though doesn’t realize it in spite of having conducted lectures in the subject on Gene’s behalf. I think Rosie probably picked up on it early because she’s a PHD in psychology and would recognize the symptoms but it’s never raised as an issue. Don is who he is. Don’s methodical methods and expertise are just what Rosie needs.

You can see that he’s starting to find her appealing but since he doesn’t consider her a wife candidate, just a friend, and he doesn’t think he’s capable of the emotion of love, he continually says or does the wrong thing, having no clue about how to read emotions or situations. Love isn’t logical and Don is lost at sea when it comes to things like that and yet, and yet, he seems to be a lot happier around Rosie than without her.  The story is fun and light hearted and it’s a feel-good book. You get exasperated when Don yet again gets it wrong, you wait with anticipation to see if he gets it right. You want to tell them both not to give up. You sigh with satisfaction at the end.

Review: My Italian Bulldozer by Alexander McCall Smith

2017: 44
4 of 5 stars
Published April 2017

Paul Stewart writes about food and wine. He’s recently split from his girlfriend and is nursing wounds so his editor sends him to Tuscany to finish his latest book. When he arrives, there’s a major snafu with the rental vehicle. Thank heavens the man he conveniently meets on the plane has connections in high places but even that’s not enough to get him into a rental car on a busy weekend. The only thing available is a bulldozer. Really? Never mind, just go with it! He chunters down the road and up the hills and even saves a maiden in distress.

It’s a book for armchair travelers, putting you right in the heart and hill towns of Tuscany, Italy.  In the book, he describes “Italian hill towns are hill towns with conviction;” and by God that’s no word of a lie. I’ve been in a few Tuscan and Umbrian hill towns perched on top of hills, with the roads snaking up the side of the steep slopes ending just below the walls of the towns where you then get to park any vehicle larger than a Smart Car and trudge up the hill into the town proper. The spectacular views are worth it and we get to see them through the Paul’s eyes.

It’s a book for foodies with mouth watering descriptions of the food and wine of the region. You might want to consider reading this book with a napkin or bib. It’s about a food writer, after all, and the focus on the tastes of Tuscany in ever delicious detail. In both cases, you might find yourself wanting to pack up and  find a little inn in Tuscany though you might prefer a normal car instead of a bulldozer.

And it’s a book for romantics. Paul meets a lovely woman but there are, as always, complications. His heart might be mended but not from the direction he expects.

What I liked in particular about the book is that it’s easy to read and the author doesn’t waste words. Some books have so much extra detail that it’s like wading through sludge trying to get to the actual story. McCall Smith wastes no time getting to the point and into the plot, with enough detail, humour, and dialogue that you know who the characters are and what’s going on. Even when it’s not specifically stated, you can easily read between the lines and get it. Things are wrapped up quickly, tidily and satisfactorily.  His books are enjoyable to read and inevitably will make you smile. He’s probably most famous for his Number 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series but his other books are equally as good and this is another winner.