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  1. When we first meet George Washington Black, he is a field slave at the Faith Plantation, Barbados. The Plantation is taken over by Erasmus Wilde, a cruel and vindictive master who treats his animals with more respect than his slaves. Thus begins a well-told but fairly routine slavery+cruelty story. Then Washington’s fortunes change when Erasmus’s brother Christopher comes to stay. He is an idealist and inventor; he needs an assistant to help him build a giant balloon in which he hoped to cross the Atlantic. He is invited to live with Christopher, to call him Titch, to eat fine food and speak his mind. Wash struggles to accept these freedoms, perhaps mindful that they only exist as long as Titch is prepared to let them exist. Then a paradigm shift and we are with Titch and Wash aboard a trading ship plying its way to Virginia. The captain and medic seem somewhat nonplussed to have given refuge to an obvious runaway slave. We have a historic maritime novella, reminiscent of Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea or Ian Maguire’s The North Water. It is well done and there is a sense of menace and tension. Then we have a stay in Arctic Canada looking at marine life. Then on to Nova Scotia where Wash finds romance but lives in fear of recapture. Then to London, trying to engage with Titch’s aristocratic family. Then to Amsterdam. Then to Morocco. [BEWARE - POTENTIAL SPOILERS] This is a plot driven novel with vivid detail. Esi Edugyan evokes four different worlds in vivid colours. But, the story never quite convinces. The characters don’t have a great deal of depth despite having plenty of action. Even Wash, the narrator, really just feels like an everyman. The main characters all do things for no obvious reason. Why does Cousin Philip shoot himself? Why does he visit Erasmus at all when he has such an unhappy history with the man? Why does Mr Wilde pretend to be dead? Why did Titch walk away from Wash? Why did John Willard keep trying to track Wash when there was no longer a bounty to be had? Why would Erasmus place such a large bounty on a slave in the first place when he thought them no more and no less than livestock? The shifting across different worlds also produced what felt like several different stories with several different atmospheres – almost like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, with only the slenderest of threads to hold them together. And given the issues of character motivation, each subsequent section became slightly diminished. The final section, England (although much of it was in Morocco) felt confusing and didn’t really provide the resolutions it set out to achieve. This doesn’t make Washington Black a bad book. Much of it is compelling, visceral. It is never less than readable and the progression from Barbados to the sea to Canada to England to Morocco is innovative for a 19th Century historical novel. There is something steampunk about the ballooning; the slave section is as good a slave narrative as any; the journey at sea is rollicking. There is an air of menace and tension through much of the novel - although this starts to dissipate in Nova Scotia and is gone by London. There is a sense of how a black person might have fitted in to various different communities. There are questions about the nature of freedom, particularly when bound by societal expectations, station of birth, and the threat that freedom might be taken away. But there is an abiding sense that this has fizzled after a really stunning first half. How does that all stack up? Being generous, perhaps four stars. ****0
  2. There are currently only 2 Patrick Gale books available in the United States, out of a total of 16 books. I hope very much that his other books make their way over the pond because he is really quite a writer. The book takes place at the turn of the last century. Harry Cane is the older of two sons from a very affluent family. Both parents die young and so the boys very much depend on each other. They marry sisters and are adopted wholesale by the family of the sisters. Harry doesn't have mistresses, but he does have homosexual love affairs and behaves very stupidly in one of them, leaving a written record of the liaison. He has also made some errors with money, although they were at the behest of one of his wife's brothers, who seemed very level-headed. The money problems provide a cover to avoid scandal by emigrating to Canada to be part of Canada's great western expansion, deciding to obtain a homestead through the Dominion Lands. He has never worked before, much less farmed, but after a year "interning" with a farm family, he finds that he's good at it and off he goes. He finds very congenial people where he settles, but also runs into a terrible man, who keeps turning up like a bad penny to create havoc. Harry has terribly sad moments of loss, both of affection, when his family turns their back on him, and then deaths in war and from the flu epidemic after the war. But there was hope in the end, which was satisfying. This book was enormously engaging. I could not wait to get back to it when I was drawn away. I felt as if I could see every person and the various places and sympathized good and bad with every feeling that Harry seemed to experience. It has been called "Canada's 'Brokeback Mountain' " and that occurred to me, too. I thought "Brokeback Mountain" was very good and saw why people would make that analogy, but this is really a very different story. Apparently, Patrick Gale has borrowed from his own family history, but I don't know by how much. It's not particularly important to know that, but it's interesting, so I mention it. Thank you Viccie, for recommending Patrick Gale.
  3. A Tale for the Time Being is a very strange novel. Broadly, a lonely and isolated writer of Japanese heritage called Ruth (who could that be?) finds a diary washed up on the beach, wrapped up with a watch and some other papers in a Hello Kitty lunchbox, on the beach in British Colombia. In equal measures, Ruth reads the diary (written in first person by a Japanese 15 year old called Nao) and has her own story told in third person narration. The story veers constantly between the very mundane of at school, poverty, loneliness through to questions of purpose, existence, suicide and time. At its core is the Buddhist idea of the butterfly flapping its wings – everything causes ripples and the ripples change history. There are multiple possible futures and, if so, there are multiple possible pasts. Until a future or a past is known, it can be anything. Ruth Ozeki plays mindgames with the reader constantly in this dense novel; but the reader only really catches on half way through. It is quirky and eccentric; also fairly difficult to get to grips with. This is not helped by digressions in Japanese and French that are footnoted. In amongst the philosophy, there are some excellent depictions of loneliness on the edge of civilisation in Canada, and social isolation for those who do not have career success in Japan. There are culture clashes as east meets west but Ozeki drives home a pretty forceful message that the west is not the best. The two narratives interweave in ever less probably ways and the ending, when it comes – and it takes its time doing so – feels unusually satisfying for a text that has got so weird. I suppose that is because the weirdness is grounded in such everyday situations. The characterisation, especially in the Japanese sections, is deep and convincing. Information is fed to the reader to allow the situation to be constantly re-appraised and people to be seen in new lights. The people in Canada feel more like devices designed to allow ideas to play out – but as devices go, they are good ones. A Tale for the Time Being is not going to be a light read. Don’t take it to the beach – not even one in British Colombia – but give it room to breathe, just stick with it if it gets weird for a bit and all will be right in the end. Glad to see this one on the Booker longlist – hopefully it will last through to the shortlist. *****
  4. Gosh this is boring. An interminable story with characters you cannot tell apart who are supposed to be fictional ciphers for a real life fictional family in Canada. Heaps of musical references and if you love Bach you might get them, but I don't. Also, interspersed with Chinese writing and poems that don't seem to add much. Creating something this dull from such an exciting period of history is an impressive achievement that has rightly been recognised by the Booker judges. *0000
  5. The cover of Station Eleven seems to target itself quite clearly at a young female market. That’s a pity; this novel is good enough to pitch to a wider audience. It’s one of those novels that has multiple narrators/points of view, zipping back and forth between the present day and the near future. This creates a rich and varied patchwork of a story; the story never gets stale because it always moves on when the reader still wants more. It is tempting to say that the book is the story of Kirsten, a young girl in the opening chapters who kind of ties everything together. Or perhaps to say that it is a story about the legacy of Arthur Leander, a famous Canadian actor who dies on a Toronto stage in the opening scenes. Or to say that it is the story of a travelling symphony orchestra; or the story of an apocalypse. It is all of these things, but each of these descriptions falls short of conveying the full extent of the story and its various strands. It’s like a literary version of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction – stories within stories. And told very well indeed. Way above the plot line, there is a clear depiction of just how fragile our modern world could be; how little it would take for components of our complex systems to fail, bringing down the whole show with it. But unlike other post-apocalyptic novels, Station Eleven is not unremittingly bleak; from the ashes we see the emergent signs of a new society. Of course there is an element of raiding abandoned homes for supplies, but there is also a tendency towards self-sufficiency and even the occasional glimpse of luxury. There are contrasts with a better life that people once led, but actually those lives are shown to be pretty hollow. In particular, there is a scene where Arthur (before he died, obviously) is walking through a hotel lobby to the lift, aware that all eyes are on him. He is aware of the need to portray a ma who is time-poor; for whom everyday chores are just too mundane. Yet when he gets to his hotel room, he breathes a sigh of relief, is immediately bored and in the absence of a real job, has very little other than everyday chores to fill his time. We see people in the old world travelling helter skelter in cars, ships, planes – all quite effortlessly. In future world, travel even between neighbouring cities represents an epic adventure. Yet in both worlds, travel has no great purpose. The book is not perfect. There is a heavy reliance on coincidence and the onset of the apocalypse (disease) seems a bit too sudden and a bit too comprehensive. But for the most part, the ideas are well thought through; the characters are three dimensional and the reader cares about their fates – even when we already know them. *****
  6. These books were recommended to me by Momac, for which she has my sincere thanks and eternal gratitude as they have given me great pleasure, enjoyment and welcome relaxation. Also, an addiction to the writing of Louise Penny. The quiet village of Three Pines in rural Quebec has an interesting assortment of inhabitants including a poet, two artists, an antiques collector and a psychologist turned bookshop owner who meet in each other’s homes or the friendly local bistro to socialise, exchange gossip and enjoy good food. Strangely, for such a pleasant restful village,Three Pines does tend to have rather more murders than one would expect. Chief Inspector Gamache, Head of Homicide for the Surete of Quebec, comes with his team to investigate in the first book, Still Life. Thereafter he and the team return at frequent intervals, to solve new murders, while getting to know and understand the villagers more as time goes on. This makes it hard when those they like are among the suspects. Sometimes the actual crimes occur elsewhere but there is always a link to Three Pines. This series really should be read in order as there are many themes and storylines running parallel and developing throughout. The personalities and dynamics of the Homicide Team are well portrayed and we begin to know them well as individuals and have an interest in their personal lives. The lives of some villagers are also explored in detail and we may become fond of or exasperated by them, This is done by thoughtful explorations of human strengths, weaknesses and dilemmas, not in any way trite or mawkish. The final and greatest pleasure of this series for me was all the incidental general or detailed information about customs, history and locations in and around French speaking Quebec. As usual I ended up with google maps handy to work out where everything occurred in this vast beautiful country and it hqs left me looking forward to learning more. I gladly recommend this series and so far have read/listened to and enjoyed seven books. The sixth, Bury the Dead, is outstandingly good and gained several awards, but as mentioned previously it is best to read in order to enjoy perfectly.
  7. Don't know if anyone on the forum has read any of Linwood Barclay's books - he is a Canadian suspense writer and each of the books I've read have been excellent. The latest one I am reading, No Safe House, is no exception. Had to convince myself to turn off the Kindle and go to bed as my impulse was to stay up to see how the plot would get untangled. The family involved was recovering from trauma which had happened to them where the mother and daughter were almost killed. The mother is so protective of her daughter to the extent of trying to control everything about her life - this backfires and the daughter becomes involved with a dodgy young man from school who wants to take her for a ride in a 'borrowed' Porche as he knows the family is away. From there the plot becomes more involved, there is a shooting, the father gets involved and is trying to see a way to get to the bottom of the problem to keep his daughter from being charged by the police and it remains to be seen how everyone is going to get out of the mess that's been created. If you like suspense novels then I recommend Linwood Barclay.
  8. Laura Curtis’s father has died. His car ran off the road and down the cliff. He had lost all his money trying to help a Nigerian girl in distress… As Laura unpicks the details, sifts through the e-mails, she is horrified at what she sees. It’s never quite clear whether she mourns her father or his money, but she is definitely at grief central. And so she arrives in Lagos on a mission. Meanwhile, we follow two stories in Nigeria. On the one hand, we have Winston, an internet scammer. Winston is articulate, personable and operates with a very warped sense of morality. He believes he has a right to take the mugus’ money. And the third main story is Nnamdi, a fisherman’s son who has been displaced by oil workers and winds up as a back-up driver on a lorry trip up north. On the way, he meets a pregnant woman and his life is changed irrevocably. Inevitably, the stories tie together. The plot is taught and writhes like a snake. But it is the characterisation that shines. Each character has strengths, weaknesses and flaws. The reader’s sympathies change, lighting on one character for a while until reminded of the alternative perspective, or that character’s place in the wider scheme of things. There is a strong sense of place, too. Nigeria feels real, large and complex. It is not just a den of thieves, there are real, decent people trying to earn a living. There is wealth and there are natural resources. Lagos becomes real – has suburbs and a history. 419 is a complex, well thought out novel that leaves a deep emotional imprint. It is written with panache. There is a visible narrator engaging in little asides to the reader, teasing and tantalising. Right from the start, as Henry Curtis dies, the prospect of a satisfactory resolution is lost. Will Ferguson nevertheless pulls off a stylish ending, even if it leaves the reader feeling rather hollow. *****
  9. I have read 2/3 of the Sportswriter trilogy. I read both The Sportswriter (1986) and Independence Day (1995), but missed The Lay of the Land (2006), probably because it was 20 years after the first book and 11 after the second. But I plan to rectify that error because Canada was such a good book. And I'm kicking myself for buying it in paperback and not reading it immediately. I somehow decided I would keep it for a flight when I couldn't use my tablet and that's what happened (I read it on my recent trip to Baton Rouge, when my tablet was misbehaving). I wish I'd read it sooner. Opening sentences: "First, I'll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later." The book is told from the point of view of a 66-year old man, Del Parsons, but virtually all of the book is devoted to telling the story of what happened to his family in 1960, when he and his twin sister, Berner, were 15 years old. That was a momentous year for his family: his parents decide to solve a difficult financial problem they are facing by robbing a bank and are almost immediately caught and thrown in jail, leaving Del and Berner completely alone, with no one even thinking to check on them. His sister takes the opportunity to run away to California. Del is taken by a family friend from their home in Great Falls, Montana and left with her brother--Arthur Remlinger, a deeply flawed man--in Canada (Saskatchewan). I'm not going to explain any more about the murders--just read the book. The bank robbery is the formative event in all their lives. Late in the book, his sister, with whom he has only the most sporadic contact after she leaves, says "Sometimes I think about them and their big robbery....I have to laugh. All of us just spinning off like that. It was the event of our lives, wasn't it? A great big f***-up, and everything piled on top." I think Del writes this memoir because he is trying to figure out how his previously-normal-seeming parents undertook this bizarre action and the terrible effects it had on their entire family. One of the things he sees is that his parents really weren't all that normal, something children often don't understand until they leave home. His sister understands more quickly than he does, which is why he's the one who follows his mother's plan to be left with Mr. Remlinger and she does not. It seems an odd plan to him, but he says, " was still acting on the trust that adults often do strange things that in the end are revealed as right, after which someone takes care of you. It's a crazy idea and should've seemed crazy to me then, given all that had happened in our family. But I felt that I was doing what our mother had planned for me, and for Berner, too. Given my character, that was all I needed to think." And leaving him with Arthur Remlinger was, in fact, a crazy idea. In a lesser work, Remlinger would be a child abuser so we would know he was totally evil. But he's not--his defining characteristic is an absence. Del says that "[o]ther people were for the most part dead to him." He spends a lot of time creating a persona with the clothes he wears, the language he uses, the car he drives--everything, but there's no person there. As a read, you realize it at about the same time Del does and it's almost more horrifying for not being obvious from the beginning. Remlinger neglects or uses Del in much more subtle ways and by the time the obviously bad stuff starts, there's not much Del can do. At some point, Del says, "think how close evil is to the normal goings-on that have nothing to do with evil." Del leaves pretty quickly--Remlinger's girlfriend, who is a much more caring person, finds him another place to live and go to school (he never sees either of his parents again), but it's clear he's spent his whole life coping with the emotional aftermath of that year. And what all that thinking and pondering has led to is a very insightful understanding of most of the people and events of that year. He's very clear that he didn't understand most of this at 15, but who would? He describes both his understanding at the time and his subsequent realizations as he's telling the story and it really makes you ache for that poor unprepared child, thrown into the middle of adult chaos. It is at times upsetting because both of these children need and are deprived of their parents at an extraordinarily immature and unprepared age. They may have looked like adults, but they were not close to being ready for what they encountered. There are some things he still doesn't understand or care to investigate and it's interesting what those things are. If you read the amazon reviews, a lot of people complain that nothing happens. I didn't feel that way at all. I spent the whole book worried and anxious about Del and Berner and very aware of how vulnerable they both were. I read somewhere that Ford said that he was always interested in the families of criminals and wondered what it would be like to be the child of one. He's done a terrific job of telling us what it was like to be this child in these circumstances.
  10. I seldom give up on books. Once You Break A Knuckle is the kind of book that makes me think I ought to do so more often. This is a collection of short stories set in a remote Canadian town of Invermere. The population is blue collar in both thought and deed. We find locals itching for beer-fuelled fights, going off into the mountains with guns, driving around in pick ups and working on building sites. Some characters crop up in multiple stories but there doesn't seem to be any bigger narrative thread or any real character development. The characters are as they are. Perhaps there is a slight undercurrent of missed opportunities but mostly it's deadbeat people in deadbeat settings. The writing relies heavily on dialogue and understatement. This makes many of the stories hard to follow - both in terms of what is going on and who is who - most of the Invermere folk seem pretty interchangeable and it is not always clear who is present in a given story, Perhaps greater powers of concentration would allow the reader to fathom this, but frankly why bother? The reward at the end seems so scant. If there is a redeeming feature, it is that Break A Knuckle does evoke quite a strong sense of place; an atmosphere of decay and dereliction. That's not enough to justify reading the book, but does mean that there are worse books out there. **000
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