April 26, 2009

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society - Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Two books finished in under a week - a good week!

This is a book that first caught my attention in the bookstore because of it's title.  And then I started hearing some very positive reviews which made me want to read it even more.  And it really is a lovely little book.

Guernsey and the other Channel Islands first came to my attention when I met my friend Judy who grew up in Guernsey and now lives in Devon.  Then I read a bit about it in Elizabeth George's book "A Place of Hiding" (not one of her better books, but I was able to pass it on to Judy from Guernsey when I was done reading it!).  And here is another book featuring the island.

It is set in 1946, immediately following the Second World War, and is told strictly through letters (imagine an era when a letter written would arrive to it's recipient the very next day!) and telegrams.  Thinking back, I can't recall reading a novel set in immediate post-war Europe - it is very interesting to read about in this book, as the war looms large in everyone's memory and thinking, yet they are all trying to move on.

I can't give a brief plot synopsis as there isn't really one - this is very much a character-based book rather than a plot-based book.  There are several stories or plot lines woven together.  The story of how the islanders survived the German occupation during the war, by creating the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (the topic of discussion was books; the potato peel pies were the snacks served).  The story of Juliet, a London-based author who found success during the war and decides to write about Guernsey.  A gentle love story, made the more tender by being offset by a tumultuous one.  Elizabeth's story - her unconventional bringing up, her love affair, her illegitimate daughter, her imprisonment in a German camp.  Remy, who was befriended by Elizabeth in the camp and is now trying to get on with life post-prison camp.  A series of letters written by Oscar Wilde.

The book works.  The characters, as eccentric as they may be, are believable.  As are the letters - each writer has a distinct voice, and the personality comes through.  I was sad when the book ended, and I wanted to know more.  This book will definitely be filed under "to be re-read".

April 22, 2009

The Private Patient - P.D. James

I love reading a good mystery once in a while, especially one by an author that I know won't disappoint.  I think that it is partly the knowledge that there is going to be a resolution in the end, and partly the journey that gets us to that resolution - the thoughts and feelings of everyone involved.  And some of my favourite mystery authors keep the same cast of characters in terms of the investigators, and allow those character's lives to develop over the course of a series.

Some of my favourite mystery authors include P.D. James, Patricia Cornwell, Kathy Reichs, Elizabeth George, Minette Walters, and of course, some of the grand masters of the genre including Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle.

This latest offering by P.D. James lived up to my expectations - interesting characters, a solid murder mystery, and good writing.  I did correctly guess the murderer about 1/2 way through, but that didn't detract from my enjoyment of the book - as I said, half of the fun comes from the journey to the resolution.  And my favourite detectives - Adam Dalgliesh and Kate Miskin - are back, and I don't think that it is saying too much to reveal that Dalgliesh and Emma get married at the end of the book :-)

The entire book, as well as the ending, beg the question of whether the author is planning another book in the series.  She is 88 years old after all, and still publishing a book every couple of years.  In terms of the characters, there are several hints throughout the book that change is afoot in New Scotland Yard, and that the Special Investigation Squad is about to be dissolved.  Plus with the happy ending of the wedding (as well as Kate and Piers getting together again), the series could end here without leaving faithful readers wanting to know what happened.  We'll have to see what happens...  I, for one, am hoping for more!

So my question for anyone who might be reading this blog - who are your favourite mystery writers, and why?

April 10, 2009

Three Day Road - Joseph Boyden

I read Boyden's Through Black Spruce last year as part of my Giller shortlist read-athon, and then ranked it as the best book that I had read all year.  It was only after I had read it that I learned that it was, in fact, the second book of a planned trilogy, with the first book being titled Three Day Road.  Having lived in "deepest darkest Africa", there is a 3-year gap in my cultural knowledge, and as Three Day Road was published in 2005, I missed it completely.

Three Day Road is similar to Through Black Spruce, in that it is made up of two distinct, intertwined stories, told by two different people - in this case, Xavier Bird who goes over to Europe to fight in WW1, and his aunt Niska who is trying to keep the old way of life alive, in defiance of the white settlers.  Xavier is the father / grandfather to the main characters in Through Black Spruce.

My big revelation came in the first half of the book, and it involved a complete re-working of my concept of Canadian history.  Back in Grade 7 and 8 history class, we learned about the Hudson's Bay Company, and the fur trade, and the Voyageurs.  Here in Thunder Bay, we are right on the old Voyageur route as they headed out west.  But I had never before considered what the original inhabitants of this beautiful land may have thought and felt about these invaders.

To me, it was Niska's story that had the more powerful impact.  She would have been born in the second half of the 19th century, and she experienced an early childhood with a nomadic lifestyle, following the game and truly living off the land.  Then after her father dies, she and her mother and sister end up in Moose Factory living on the reservation.  (I should probably mention that she is epileptic, and becomes a medicine woman and Windigo-killer.)  After a (very) brief and traumatic stay at a residential school, she and her mother return to the bush where she spends most of the rest of her life.  Later in life, she rescues her nephew, Xavier, from that same residential school, and brings him up the way that she was brought up.  But the resentment towards the nuns, the European system, the fur traders, the alcohol, comes across very clearly.

I love it when a book can make me change my perspective so very completely.

On the other hand, I have a friend who says that it was Xavier's first hand telling of trench warfare that made the biggest impression on her.

Early in the book, I started thinking that this was even better than Through Black Spruce, but unfortunately I found that it dragged on a little too long towards the end.  I kept reading eagerly though, as several questions present in the early chapters (Why did Niska think that Xavier was dead, and vice versa?  How did Elijah die?  How did Xavier lose his leg?) that aren't solved until the very end of the book.

I want to go back now and re-read Through Black Spruce (once I get my copy back), and I look forward to the next book.