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.

 

#20BooksOfSummerChallenge 

Cross Canada Reading Challenge – British Columbia

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

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: Impact to Contact: The Shag Harbour Incident

2017: 48
3.5 of 5 stars
Published 2013

October 1967. Nova Scotia’s south shore. There is a small fishing village named after a local sea bird called Shag Harbour. On the night of October 4, 1967 strange lights were seen over the sky and it looked like the object crashed into the ocean at one point. They were also seen elsewhere that evening, near the town of Shelburne and in the sky in Halifax. This book looks at the incident and digs into the documentation from various sources including the government along with testimony from witnesses. It seems likely that it was a genuine UFO sighting but no official word will ever actually say so.

It is centered on the Shag Harbour incident but also on UFO sightings in the area and in general, presenting evidence, interviews and research in an easy to understand fashion. Some of it is very interesting, relating geological anomolies in various locations to sightings that seem to coincide. Some of the research is a tad dry and I couldn’t always read a lot in one sitting but for the most part, the book contains some very convincing arguments.

My opinion: It seems to me that it’s  very isolationist to assume we are the only planet with life and a society in the whole universe.  We all wonder if there’s life on other planets and moons. Some would naturally be more technologically advanced and some are still in the basic stages of evolution and all points in between. For the advanced species, surely they are just as curious and adventurous as we would be, if  and when we have the ability to explore.

You can decide for yourself. The Truth Is Out There.

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.