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.



Cross Canada Reading Challenge – British Columbia

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

Review: Gold Fever by Vicki Delany

2017: 49
3 of 5 stars
Published January 2010

Dawson City in the Klondike, 1898, is a bustling town filled with people on a quest for gold. It’s a town of wooden shacks, tents, booze, mud, dance hall girls, prostitutes, people intent on making a fortune one way or another, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who always get their man or woman.

Fiona MacGillivray has found Dawson City a good place to retreat to, a place to make some money and raise her son, Angus. She owns the Savoy, a successful dance hall. She is beautiful (and knows it and plays it to her best advantage), a bit haughty, strong, determined, and it sounds like she’s had more than a few scrapes and adventures in her life. She has secrets from her past, lived a rather scurrilous life and we get to hear a little more about it in this book. A face from her past shows up, reminding her of things she’d buried deeply inside.

Her son saves a native woman from suicide, a nosy writer comes to town, the notorious Madam has it in for Fiona and has decided to ruin her.  It all kicks off from there, including a murder or two.

This is the second book in a series about Fiona’s adventures in Dawson City. There’s some romantic overtones around the edges but it’s not about that because Fiona doesn’t seem to want anyone to get too close. She’s not altogether a sympathetic character, being vain about her looks and her clothing, jewelry etc but she does love her son above all else which gives her a redeeming quality. She also seems to have a habit of getting caught up in murders!  The Gold Rush setting is interesting and the plot moves along quickly. It’s an easy read with colourful characters and a murder mystery neatly wrapped up by the final chapter.

Review: The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman

2017: 43
2.5 of 5 stars
Published January 2011

The Red Garden spans nearly 300 years telling the stories of the inhabitants of a small Massachusetts town, Blackwell. It’s really a series of connecting short stories about the descendants of the founding families, touching base every generation or 2 or 3. I had thought it would be a family saga, and it is, kind of, but on a higher level than I expected. You don’t really get to know the characters all that well because it covers so many of them over the years and it gets a bit more confusing to connect the characters to the original families as they intermarry and the names change.

Through it all is the garden, with red soil and where all the plants end up blooming and producing in various shades of red, including the old apple tree, the Tree of Life, that produced fruit during the year there was no summer, keeping the original inhabitants alive through a long, tough winter. Elsewhere, there is an element of magic, of the spirits, of folklore (Johnny Appleseed, the ghost of a child, a woman that may or may not be a mermaid).

I enjoyed the first story about the families that founded the town and the woman, Hallie, who was instrumental in keeping them all alive by hunting in the winter, and even milking a hibernating female bear. She lied and said she’d found a cow wandering. I wondered why the others didn’t ask her why she didn’t just bring the cow home? But I digress. Hoffman is a lovely writer but I’m afraid the characters and the stories felt more like snapshots. Though I liked a few of them, overall, they didn’t grab me. Perhaps it’s just that it wasn’t what I was expecting. I have read a couple of her books and I really enjoyed them so I think this is just an exception, for me. And only my opinion, of course. You may really like it.

Review: The Diviners by Margaret Laurence

2017: 41
4 of 5 stars
Published 1974

Margaret Laurence is one of Canada’s most esteemed writers. The Diviners is one of 5 books that are about strong women living in or from small town Manitoba. Morag Gunn is the central figure in this book, an orphan that was brought up on the wrong side of the tracks in Manawaka by Prin and Christie who is the town scavenger. She always felt out of place and awkward, didn’t fit in and now, a successful writer in middle age, she is reflecting back on her life as she waits for and worries about her teenage daughter Pique who has taken off and gone to the west coast.

Snippets of Morag’s life are told as if watching a home movie or reading an excerpt from a journal and include Christie’s tall stories, her love affairs, her marriage and other episodes from her life as she matches snapshots to those memories. I think it’s about finding your place in life, both in middle age and when you’re young. Experiences that shape you and show you what you want and don’t want. Morag has to let Pique find out her own way, too, just as she had to.

The book is filled with colourful characters and Laurence’s dialogue and descriptions are a joy to read.

This has been a controversial book and has been challenged many times over the years. It’s hard to imagine why in this day and age but when it was written, in the mid 70s, it was unconventional to show a woman opting to have and raise a child on her own, having casual sexual encounters and affairs, sometimes with married men. A strong woman, bucking the conventions of society, using strong language, is not to be encouraged, or so it is said. I think Ms. Laurence was definitely ahead of her time though it was written in the early days of modern feminism, or women’s liberation as we all called it back then. It’s a wonderful book and definitely worth reading.

Review: Kin by Lesley Crewe

3.5 of 5 stars
Published September 2012

Kin is the story of siblings Annie and David Macdonald and Annie’s best friend Lila. It traces their lives and their subsequent families from the 1930s into the millenium, mainly based in the Glace Bay area of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. I don’t get to read that many books based in my home province and always enjoy the ones I have found. Lesley Crewe is a fairly new author for me. She writes books about friendships and families, mostly all pretty relateable (though the last one I read, Hit & Mrs, was a bit off the wall).

I usually always enjoy a “family saga” book, one that traces several generations. I also usually find that the first and second generation are more interesting and have more detail than the later ones. In this case, most of the book focusses on Annie, David and Lila. The next generation doesn’t really get as much of a look in until a good 2/3 of the way through the book but having said that, it’s still about the family as a whole.

Family, marriages, relationships, friendships. Good times, bad times, tragedy, birth and death. Just like life. The writing style was a bit different again from the other two books of hers I read, which were each different from each other. This one seemed to have more of an ordinary feel which might have been deliberate since it was about an ordinary family. I enjoyed the mostly Cape Breton locations with a bit of Halifax and Montreal thrown in. Lots of familiarity there for me. The characters are also believable and when you can see that their life decisions feel like a train wreck, you find yourself riding along with them, waiting for the inevitable.

The author doesn’t shy away from the difficult and tragic events and a couple of them are particularly sad. But again, that’s life as we all know it. We all survive and deal with devastating events and losses and hopefully we have the support of a strong family to help us get through.

(This will fill one of my Bingo challenge squares for a book written in my home province)

Review: The Muse by Jessie Burton

2017: 33
4.5 of 5 stars
Published June 2016

I really liked Jessie Burton’s first novel, The Miniaturist (review), a historical fiction taking place in Amsterdam in the late 17th century. The Muse is Ms. Burton’s next novel and it, too, is historical fiction, weaving together two stories, one from 1936 and one from 1967, around a painting.

Odelle is a Trinidadian immigrant living in London in 1967. She’s spent the first few years there selling shoes but has finally found an office job in a gallery and met a man, Lawrie, at the wedding of her best friend, Cynth. Lawrie’s recently deceased mother left him a painting and he thinks it might be worth something. He brings it to the gallery where Odelle works and the gallery owner believes it’s a long lost painting by a Spanish artist, Isaac Robles. His assistant, the enigmatic Marjorie Quick, takes Odelle under her wing, encouraging her writing talent. There’s something about the Surrealist painting that draws people in but is it really by Robles? Marjorie Quick seems to know more than she’s saying.

In the south of Spain in 1936 in the months leading up to the Spanish Civil War, we meet the Schloss family. Olive, the daughter, wants to be an artist but knows her art dealer father doesn’t believe women can be true artists. Her mother, Sarah, is staggering through life, with a bottle in one hand and a pill or two in the other, off in her own world most of the time. Two locals, Isaac and his sister Teresa, are employed by the Schloss family. Isaac is an artist as well as a firm believer in the upcoming revolution while Teresa has secrets of her own.

The story is told between the two timelines, in 1967 where Odelle is trying to discover the secrets behind the painting and in 1936, the real story of it. There’s going to be a connection between the past and “present” because that’s how these things work.  The fun is in the guessing. Halfway through, I thought I had it figured out and I did, partially.

The female characters in this book, as in her first book, are vivid and believable. We have two women, one an artist and one a writer, both of whom reluctant to show their talent to the world, both having someone, another woman each, that pushes them to try to encourage them to make something of their talent. The real story is in the past. Those in the present don’t make a lot of headway in peeling back the layers of the secret until the end. The Schloss family dynamic seems dysfunctional and into that, the mix of Isaac and his sister Teresa might be lighting a fuse that leads to an implosion. You know it won’t end well for them but it’s hard to put the book down until you find out what happens.

Review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

5 of 5 stars
Published February 2017

Pachinko is a type of Japanese arcade game, similar I think to pinball with upright machines that have pins and bright colours, similar to the cover of this book, which is quite a pretty cover, I have to say. According to Wikipedia, it’s also a game that is used as a gambling machine and the small steel balls are rented to the players in these Pachinko Parlors like slot machines in a casino and the winners get the balls which are exchanged for prizes or money in a separate business because gambling for cash directly is illegal in Japan.

Life is a gamble, a crap shoot. You take chances. You rise to the top or you struggle to survive. Maybe an outside influence contrives to set you on a path to win or lose.  This is a story about a family that survives. It’s a multi generational saga, just the kind I really enjoy. It starts in Korea with a woman and her slow but genuine husband. They have a daughter, Sunja whom they love dearly. After the husband dies, the wife and daughter run a boarding house, barely making ends meet. The daughter falls in love with the slick and handsome Koh Hansu, and gets pregnant but it turns out he is married. She is shamed but another man comes to her rescue. A Korean Christian minister, Isak, is a guest who has been ill with tuberculosis and after Sunja and her mother nurse him back to health, he marries her to give the child a name and save her reputation. They move to Osaka to live with his brother and his wife where he grows to love her and the little boy, Noa and they have a son together, Mozasu. World War II has a devastating effect on the families and as we move into the post war years, we follow the lives of the two boys, both of whom become involved in the pachinko business.

I didn’t realize that Koreans who lived in Japan were treated very badly. The racism is appalling, with Koreans having little or no rights at all and looked upon as third or fourth class people. I can’t even say “citizens” because for much of the 20th century, they were not allowed to apply for Japanese citizenship even if they’d been born and raised there. Even to this day, Koreans in Japan don’t have a lot of equal rights or opportunities. The story focuses on Family,  on the Korean and Japanese cultures, Loyalty, the unpredictability of life and the effects of life choices, those choices that are gambles in the hope that they can make better lives for themselves and their families. It sweeps through most of the 20th century and is a really good story. As with most really long books, the first couple of generations’ worth of story is better than the later ones  which don’t have as much depth or detail but I still enjoyed it all.

The book is quite long and could have used some tighter editing. Sometimes the extraneous detail takes away from the emotion in the scene. Another point that I saw mentioned elsewhere is that we never see any death. All the characters over the decades that die, do so “off screen” or off page, if you will, and it’s referred to after the fact. It can be a bit jarring in one or two occurrences.  As with a lot of books that span many years and 3+ generations, the last generation  or two’s timeline seems to be short changed, with longer and longer gaps of time passing between chapters which are shorter and less detailed, pretty much just a “touch base” of an update.

I received this book in a Goodreads giveaway via Grand Central Publishing for an honest review, and honestly, I really liked it! It’s got all the elements I enjoy in a book. Multi generations of a family, well developed and interesting characters, a long and chunky book, a look into a culture with which I am unfamiliar.