August 30, 2011

The Beggar's Garden - Michael Christie

I picked up this book recently based on a raving review in the local paper and let me just say that I was not disappointed.

This is a collection of loosely linked short stories set in and around Vancouver's east side. Each one is almost like a little vignette or a mini portrait of a character, each with his or her own story to tell and view on life. There are a few interactions and connections between the characters in the different stories, but no more than you would expect from a group of people living in the same neighbourhood. There is no cute-sy wrap up or tie up where all of the characters come together in a happy campfire sing-along in the end. (oops - do I sound too cynical there?)

What I really liked about these stories was the uniqueness of each one. All of the characters were memorable, and each one had a unique voice, some more likable than others, some more memorable than others, but each one with a story to tell. From the woman running a thrift shop to a heroin junkie getting high, to a grandfather trying to track down his grandson who is living on the streets, to a young couple who meet at the dog park then come together over their dogs' friendship, to a banker who "befriends" a beggar as his marriage is falling apart, to a man in a psychiatric hospital who descends into more and more delusions as he stops his anti-psychotic meds; each character seemed so real to me as I was reading the stories.

I can't pin down a story as being my favourite or least favourite, but I can say that this is one of the best collections of short stories that I have read in a long time. I started each story with anticipation to find out who would be introduced, and what story he or she would have to tell.

OK - have I raved enough about this book yet? I really hope to see it on some of the award lists this fall!

Mistress of the Son - Sandra Gulland

I think that I may have mentioned at some point in the past how much I enjoyed Sandra Gulland's Josephine books (The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B.; Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe; and The Last Great Dance on Earth); and so I was looking forward to going 100ish years earlier with the same author.

The title character is Louise de la Vallière (aka Petite); born to a family of minor nobility with no money for a dowery either for marriage or to enter a convent; and destined through a series of chances to become mistress of Louis IV, the Sun King.

Unfortunately, while it was an enjoyable read, I didn't love it as much as the Josephine books. I quite enjoyed the beginning when Petite is a child, with the description of French country life in the 17th century. Unfortunately I found that it really lost momentum in the middle part when Petite reaches the court; and then there was a pile of action in the last 50 pages and then the book ended. I never had the feeling of being right there in the middle of the action, the way that I did with Josephine B.

It was an easy read though, perfect for the summer when I don't want to have to devote too much energy to reading. And for when I was staying with my sister and her 3 children under the age of 5 and had very little energy left in the evening when I finally had a chance to open a book!

August 9, 2011

The Moonspinners - Mary Stewart

I don't think that I've ever raved about my love for Mary Stewart's books on this blog. She is an author that I've loved ever since I was in high school, and one that I go back to whenever I feel in need of a good read, even though I've read everything that she ever wrote multiple times.

How would I describe Mary Stewart? She is a family favourite, enjoyed by my grandmother, my aunts, my mother, my cousins, and my sisters. Between my grandmothers bookcase, my mother's bookcase, and the local library, I read my way through everything that she wrote at least once by the time I finished high school.

She writes what I would consider light romantic suspense novels. They usually feature strong and independent female heroines who get into adventures in far-flung corners of the globe. There is usually a romance involved that culminates in a chaste kiss at the end. She was the wife of a professor of geology, and as thus she had the opportunity to travel the world and her books take place in a variety of countries. My sister and I both want to visit Greece some day as a result of reading her books. As well, she wrote a series of books re-telling the Arthurian legend with Merlin as the main character.

So when Niranjana over at Brown Paper hosted a Mary Stewart giveaway this year, I had to enter. Twice. The giveaway was sponsored by Hodder & Stoughton, Mary Stewart's life-long publishers, and with each entry, the contestants could specify any Mary Stewart book that they wanted to win. (I entered to win The Moonspinners as well as The Gabriel Hounds). So imagine my excitement when, on Canada Day, I received an e-mail from Niranjana telling me that I had won a copy of The Moonspinners, a book that I hadn't read in years but remember loving.

The plot is classic Mary Stewart. Nicola is working for the English embassy in Greece and is on holidays with her cousin Frances in Crete; she ends up getting involved with some English boys on holidays who have run into a bit of misadventure; they end up solving the mystery with not a small amount of danger along the way; and end up sailing off into the sunset at the end. Nice, light, adventurous, and romantic while not offending my feminist sensibilities. A perfect summer read. In fact, all through university when I was home on summer holidays, I would visit the local library in order to re-read all of the Mary Stewart books that they had in their collection.

I feel as though I should loan this book to my sister now that I have re-read it - I told her about the giveaway and she also entered for a chance to win this book but didn't. So I will be the good sister and pass my copy on to her next time I see her.

Cutting for Stone - Abraham Verghese

I can't decide if I liked this book or not. When I was reading it, I was totally engrossed in the story; and yet I could put it down for days (or weeks) on end with no compulsion to continue the story.

I am a sucker for books set in Africa; and this book, set in a mission hospital in Ethiopia held a special appeal to me since I worked at a mission hospital in Tanzania from 2003-2006. I loved how he captured the atmosphere of an African mission hospital - I found myself right back at Ndolage at times while reading the first part of this book. There were just a few minor errors that stood out, and were made even more obvious by the overall accuracy of the details (e.g. a British surgeon called Dr. Stone, while in the British system, Dr. so-and-so refers to a physician while surgeons are referred to as Mr. so-and-so). But the descriptions of the patients waiting to be seen, and the families present at the hospital, and the logic (or lack there-of), and the pandering to donors, and the frustration and desperation and joys in different circumstances all rang so true.

The story would probably be considered epic in nature (and in my opinion, maybe just a bit too far reaching?). A British surgeon and an Indian nun in Ethiopia fall in love. Twins are born to the nun who dies and the surgeon disappears. The twins are raised by two other doctors at the hospital. One twin becomes a local specialist on fistulas, while the other twin goes to med school and eventually has to flee the country due to a misunderstanding in the civil war. That twin ends up in America where his past eventually catches up to him; and he learns more about his origins and ancestors.

Like I said, when I picked up this book, I could read it for hours on end with the impression of barely any time passing at all; and yet I could also put it down for weeks on end without picking it up again. But overall, my impression of this book is a positive one. The characters were well rounded and 3-dimensional; the story was interesting; and the setting was well described. I'd love to visit Ethiopia some day!

Bride of New France - Suzanne Desrochers

This is the other book that I packed in my bag for my trip to Paris last month, and I was glad that I had it when I finished The Time In Between on the plane, then missed my connection in Toronto and had to wait 6 hours for another flight home to Thunder Bay. I had packed it since it was on my TBR list, and is set partly in France!

It was another thoroughly enjoying book, and I could tell that the author knew the time period and history well. This book evolved out of her master's thesis on Les Filles de Roi, and in turning it into fiction, it allowed her to imagine what the life of one of her real-life subjects might have been.

I remember learning about Les Filles de Roi in grade 7 (I think) history class many (many, many) years ago. My impression at the time was of adventurous girls who travelled from France to New France in order to be married to the settlers and so populate the new world. I also had the impression that they were feted and celebrated and pampered as their title, Daughters of the King, implied.

This book paints a starkly different picture. Laure, the main character, was stolen from her homeless parents, placed in an orphanage, and once she showed some intelligence and skills at needlework, she was placed in a special ward destined to be seamstresses to the nobility. Due to a conflict with the matron, she is banished to the new world; a journey that involves a wretched ship ride lasting several months that leaves her weakened on arrival due to illness and malnutrition. On arrival, she is expected to choose between a handful of illiterate and uncouth settlers, who are basically being bribed with a wife in order to stick it out in the wilderness of what is now Québec. This picture is likely the more accurate one.

Laure was a very enjoyable main character. Non-conformist for the time and circumstance that she was living in, with a free and independent spirit. For a while (spoiler alert), I was worried that she was not going to survive the book, but she did. I would love to see a sequel to this book so that I can find out how she ends up adapting to life in the new world, and hopefully thriving as well as just surviving.

Interestingly, I am reading another book now (Mistress of the Sun by Sandra Gulland) that is set in France in the same period. I look forward to comparing their perspectives - watch for my review of that one later.

The Time In Between - David Bergen

I've been a lazy blogger this summer. Blame the beautiful weather that we've had. Or blame the weekend trips that I've been taking this year. Or blame the fact that I've been reading some good books and it's been hard to pause to take time to blog!

I've wanted to read this book ever since I read The Matter With Morris last year as part of my Giller Shortlist reading project. I loved The Matter With Morris; and while it didn't win the prize, I figured that this, an earlier book that had won the big prize, would still be a good read. Then Wanda's review over at A Season to Read was the straw that broke the camel's back and I went out to buy a copy.

I wasn't disappointed.

I read this book on the plane going to and from Paris back in July (no time while in Paris on a whirlwind weekend trip to do any reading), and it was perfect airplane reading for me. Entertaining enough to keep me interested; not so heavy that it was an effort to read even on a long-distance flight; and non-fluffy enough to keep me engaged and interested in the characters.

The plot is a bit hard to describe as it jumps around a bit between different times and places. A father tries to raise his children alone in the wilderness of BC after the death of his estranged wife; that same father returns to Vietnam in an attempt to come to terms with his war experience; a daughter travels to Vietnam trying to discover what happened to her father after he broke off communications. And above all, similar to The Matter with Morris, it is a book about relationships between different people, and the complexities that these relationships bring.

I love the title of this book. It implies a time in between the time that was before and the time that is to come. For Ada (the daughter mentioned above), it can refer to her time in Vietnam, in between her life in BC that she left and will go back to. For Charles (the father), it may refer to his time in BC raising his children, in between his experience fighting in Vietnam and his going back again as an adult. And for me, the reader, it referred to my time in the airplane, in between the origin and the destination. It has always struck me that time spent in an airplane is a bit of a blank time; or a time out of time. A time that must be passed through, but in which nothing of significance happens. And when I cross multiple time zones, that impression increases. I left Paris at noon, and arrived in Toronto 8 hours later at 2pm (only to find out that I had missed my connection and had to wait 6 hours for another flight to Thunder Bay); having read this book all the way across (except when I was napping).

My verdict? I really enjoyed this book, though not quite as much as The Matter With Morris. I didn't find that it packed the same emotional punch as TMWM; and I found that it ended on a pessimistic note, as compared with the overall optimism of TMWM. I am looking forward to reading more books by this author.