Review – Lost in September by Kathleen Winter

2017:68
4 of 5 stars
Published 2017

I read Annabel by Kathleen Winter and it was a beautiful, sad and pretty much awesome book so I was excited to see she had a new one coming out. I received an electronic copy from Netgalley and got stuck in. Lost in September is very, very different from Annabel. It’s about a young ex-soldier who just happens to be a dead ringer for General James Wolfe, who died in 1759 at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City. He also apparently has Wolfe’s memories. Somehow, he seems to be the same man or a reincarnation, perhaps. Or maybe he’s just a soldier with PTSD and has retreated into history to survive.

The original Wolfe, as a younger soldier, was about to have leave in Paris but in September of 1752, Britain dropped their calendar and joined the rest of Christian Europe, adopting the Gregorian calendar. It meant that everyone lost 12 days, jumping from September 2 to 14 overnight and Wolfe lost his leave. He’s resented that for, well, centuries and is in modern day Montreal trying to recoup those lost days. Through the modern day Jimmy, we relive Wolfe’s past, his relationships with his parents and friends and key events in his life. He returns to Montreal each year in September, the anniversary of both the missing leave days and the anniversary of Wolf’s death, camping out or living in a mens’ shelter. Montreal would seem to be the closest thing to Paris he can manage as he tries to get those lost days back. The present day Jimmy leans on the kindness of friends such as a historical researcher studying his old letters, someone whom he met in a library in Toronto. Little by little, Jimmy’s own past starts to permeate his “Wolfe” memories.

It all sounds a bit strange yet it’s compelling as well. The book is tagged as a “reimagining of history”. Winter has done a lot of research on Wolfe and added her own spin to the man and his private life, personal thoughts and “memories”.

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.

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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: The Way Back to Florence – Glenn Haybittle

2017:58
2 of 5 stars
Published June 2015

Freddie is British and attending an art college in Florence and meets the Italian Isabella. They fall in love and marry but soon, war breaks out. Freddie is now living in enemy territory and returns to Britain to join the Royal Air Force, flying bombing missions. Isabella stays in Florence and gets by the best she can. She ends up getting tangled up in a scheme to reproduce an Old Masters painting to keep the original out of the hands of the Nazis.

The couple had a friend, Oskar, who had returned to Paris but fled there with his small daughter, Esme because they’re Jewish. His wife was caught in the Velodrome roundup so he and Esme are on their own. In their attempts to get to Italy, they are also captured but manage to escape. Then there’s Marina who does life modelling for the art college and Francesco, the man that loves her. He is Jewish as well and is also captured along with his sister. It all starts to get a bit convoluted. I didn’t really find much connection between Marina, Francesco and the trio of Freddie, Isabella and Oskar. It felt a bit like two separate stories altogether and it felt very disconnected overall. I also found that Freddie’s story while he was flying bombing missions was repetitive and went on a bit too long.

Having said all that, I think I found Isabella’s story was the most interesting. Once Freddie’s circumstances changed, he became moderately more interesting. Francesco and Marina didn’t keep my attention much at all and Oskar’s story was also not connecting with me. It all felt very disjointed. I don’t know why, but perhaps all the different story lines just didn’t cross paths enough. I didn’t feel very invested in them. I also found that the movement of characters was too abrupt and leaps in the plotline from one point to the next often jarred. Someone might be in one location and the next time we see them, they’re in another place with no explanation as to how they got there. I also found that the “wrap up” chapter at the end was a bit unbelievable. I think the book had a lot more potential than the end result. I really wanted to like it, and I did enjoy parts of it, but it disappointed.

Thanks to NetGalley for a digital copy in exchange for a review.

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Review: Court of Lions – Jane Johnson

2017:55
4 of 5 stars
Published May 2017

This book runs along two timelines, the present and the late 15th century, both taking place in the Spanish city of Granada, home to the Moorish palace of Alhambra. The book is marketed as a cross between Ken Follett and Jodi Picoult. I like Follett’s books but not keen on Picoults but here goes, anyway.

In the present day, there’s Kate who has run away after a traumatic marriage to a controlling husband, living in Granada under an assumed name and working in a bar. She finds a small scrap of paper hidden in the old wall of the palace. It has a coded message on it and it dates from before the palace fell to Christian rule under Ferdinand and Isabella. I like that Kate is nearly 40, not nearly 20. It makes her more relateable for me. Her part of the story is a bit predictable, a new love interest and conflict with her violent, obsessed ex-husband who is determined to regain his control over her. Meanwhile, she’s investigating the past, but only just a small part of the storyline seems based on this. This will be the Picoult-like storyline.

In the past, there’s Blessings, companion to the young man who becomes the last Moorish Sultan, Abu Abdullah Mohammed. Blessings was brought from his tribe to be the companion to the young prince and they become inseparable as they grow up. He is devoted to his master and supports him through the dangerous years as the Moors fight the Christian Castilians and Aragonians. The historical detail is fantastic here and the author has some very interesting insight to add at the end of the book. This will be the Follett-like storyline (although Follett wrote a lot of spy thrillers, he also wrote one of my favourite ever books, Pillars of the Earth, a superb historical novel around the building of a medieval cathedral. There’s a sequel, but it’s more soapy and Picoultish. Still good, but not as good as Pillars which, if you like historical fiction, I highly recommend. But I digress.)

The book is about love, in both eras. Unrequited love, passion, loving or being involved with the wrong person, control, obsession. It’s about reconciling the past, your own or the historical past. Fighting for what you believe in. Fighting for your very survival. Most of the book is set in the past and for me, where I really like historical fiction, that was the best part. The present day plot wasn’t really developed enough to get invested in and the climax ended on a cliffhanger before another large segement of the historical storyline before you got back to finding out what actually happened. I wasn’t that keen on the ultimate resolution of the story, either but then, more plot  surrounding the present likely would have made a difference. Overall, though, for the historical story, very good.

Thanks to Doubleday and Goodreads for the copy for review.

Review: The Jade Peony – Wayson Choy

2017: 53
3.5 of 5 stars
Published 1995

This is one Chinese immigrant family’s experience in Vancouver during the late 1930s and into the 1940s during WWII. The three youngest children of the family alternate points of view in the first person aging from about 6 to 10 in their individual sections. The oldest of the three is Jung who is adopted by the family. Liang, the only daughter was born in Canada as was Sekky, the youngest boy. The story chronicles their struggles to juggle the old ways that their parents and elderly Grandmother espouse and the new, modern ways of English Canada.

Fitting in isn’t always easy and each of the three has their challenges. As the only girl, Liang often is made to feel less worthy than the favoured boys, especially by her grandmother. She dreams of following in Shirley Temple’s tap shoes and wants to be a modern girl. Jung is haunted by a traumatic childhood, before he was adopted. He finds boxing is the way to fit in for him and then realizes he’s attracted to entirely the wrong person. Sekky, born in Canada and sickly as a small child, is later entranced by the War and he and his friends play war games all the time but  the realities of the consequences of this war are a bit more profound than anyone expected.

All of the characters are written very well. It’s interesting to read about the immigrant experience, and a little sad, too since at that time, the Chinese were not considered good enough to be in mainstream society, marginalized and isolated. The older generation clings to the traditional “Old China” ways while the new, (mostly) Canadian born generation leans into the modern world. They change their names, they dare to dream to find their place in Canadian culture and society. The grandmother spends most of her attention on the youngest boy, Sekky, who is sickly and they become very close. It’s not surprising then, that amidst all the traditional stories about ghosts and spirits that he’s the one that can see her after she dies.

The racism that the Chinese have for the Japanese is highlighted when the war begins and the neighbours are following the Japanese attacks on their homeland overseas. Sekky’s war games are always about beating the Nazis and the Japanese. He is fervent about his “enemies” until he’s shocked when he discovers that his babysitter’s boyfriend is Japanese. Liang’s section, the first one, is shorter than the others and revolves around her relationship with an older family friend who treats her with respect, something she doesn’t get a lot of from her grandmother who is the driving force behind the family.

I did find that once each of the first two sections was finished, we really didn’t hear much more about those two children, other than in the perifery of Sekky’s world and it felt like things were left hanging. Even Sekky’s section, which I did enjoy, ended in a tragedy and there wasn’t more than that. There is now a sequel about the oldest brother, which I may seek out at some point. This is a debut novel and it wasn’t bad. The writing and the world and their family through the eyes of the children was well thought out and depicted. The book is fairly short and I think it could have used a bit more to tie it all together at times.

 

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Cross Canada Reading Challenge – British Columbia

Bingo Challenge entry (B2 – a province you’d like to visit)