Category Archives: Good Reads

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Five hundred-forty-four pages. Published by Hachette.

Yogi Berra uttered the redundant phrase, “it’s déja vu all over again,” and made it funny. There’s nothing fun about reading author Kate Atkinson’s book about déja vu all over again. Other books and movies based on the idea; The Time Traveler’s Wife and Groundhog Day come to mind, do a better job of making the time-shift paradigm enjoyable.

life-after-lifeIn Life After Life, the main character, Ursula Todd, is born on February 11, 1910. She dies at birth only to be born again and again on the exact night with different life outcomes the result of each re-birth. The book is not quite about reincarnation as it is about getting to relive your life over and over again until you get it right.

As Ursula, the precocious child in an upper-class home in the English countryside grows up, she is either raped in her home and lives with the gut-wrenching consequences or slaps her would-be rapist avoiding any second encounter; she either saves a young neighbour from a sexual predator, nearly becomes one of his victims or helps search for the missing girl; Ursula either becomes a confidant of Eva Braun or shoots Hitler herself before the war even begins.

Atkinson writes the story in a way that pivotal occasions in Ursula’s life are re-written over and over again with seemingly small but significant differences. For example, an encounter with two old ladies on a stairwell is re-written at least three times with the identical descriptions and conversations with one slight difference each time. Yet, the end results are the same. This section of the book feels like it was cut and pasted over and over again. I found it annoying to re-read.

Ursula not only has the ability to be re-born at the moment of her birth, she can jump out of windows as a teen and have a building fall upon her as an adult, die and come back again. This is where the book got murky, I wasn’t sure if Ursula’s varied deaths meant that she had to go back to her moment of birth and start over and ultimately, I didn’t know which of lives was her final one. Or, does she keep re-living her life forever?

This should have been an intriguing read full of what-ifs and if-onlys but despite its numerous awards, wasn’t.

Advertisements

The Piano Maker by Kurt Palka

Two-hundred eighty-eight pages. Published by McClelland & Stewart.

pianomakerimageThe bot-boiler that almost was. That’s the best way to sum up this sixth novel by Canadian author Kurt Palka. The last third of the book makes slogging through the first two-thirds worthwhile. If the author wrote the rest of the novel in such vivid colour as he did the courtroom drama and Canadian North flashbacks, this would be a potboiler, but it isn’t.

All the ingredients are there; World War 1, forbidden love, love lost, unrequited love, exotic travels and dangerous business liaisons. Instead, we’re treated to the plain tale of a middle-age French-born piano maker, Hélène Giroux. Her youth is marred by the war, as she learns to manage the family’s piano business. An encounter with an American scoundrel/businessman Nathan Homewood at first appears to salvage what’s left of the ruined business but the ultimate price Hélène pays is far greater than either of them could have imagined.

The book opens in the 1930s when Hélène arrives in a fictional Nova Scotia town to apply for the position of a church pianist. Through flashbacks and veiled references, we learn that Hélène is evading a secret past that involves, a death, a mental institution, a deformed foot and an illicit trade. All this should make for an enticing narrative but Palka’s rendering is muted and even dull.

Hélène’s past catches up with her when an RCMP officer informs Hélène she’s being arrested for the death of her former business partner. She was cleared of any wrong doing in a previous trial but new information comes to light.

Palka cranks it up a notch in the court room scenes with the thrilling telling of the events that led to her business partner’s death. Almost suddenly, we learn the strength, courage and resourcefulness Hélène hides from view. I couldn’t put the book down at this point.

If you rip through novels in days, then add this to your list. If you only manage to find the time to read the occasional novel, wait for something more captivating.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein

Three-hundred-thirty-one pages, published by Europa Editions

 

brilliant-friendI kept walking past this book at Chapters and picking it up to scan. I was taken by the title and  intrigued by the synopsis. I was going to make it my book club pick when another member beat me to it.

All the online reviews call it a masterpiece. I think the publisher called it that and everyone jumped on board. While it’s definitely an excellent read and worth savoring some carefully crafted passages, I would say “masterpiece” is an indulgence. Having said that, once you pass the mid-point of the novel, the first of a trilogy, you’ll have trouble putting it down until you’ve finished it. But first, you have to get there.

The first half is slow and explanative, building each character’s profile and motivation. There’s a reason there’s a cast of characters listed at the front of the book, it reads like a soap opera. You must keep track of everyone, who they’re related to and whom they like.

The book opens when the two main characters are in their 60s. Elena receives a phone call informing her Lila appears to have gone missing on purpose. The narrator Elena, now a successful author, recounts their story. Elena and Lilia are two poor young girls growing up in dirty and brutal Naples in the 1950s. They form an unlikely bond that ebbs and flows. They grow up, the world around them changes and they’re forced into separate pursuits. Theirs is a pseudo-friendship based at times on jealousy, love, admiration, necessity and rivalry. In other words, it’s complicated.

The first novel (and I haven’t read the other three) begins before the girls are school-age and already daring each other and using violence in their endeavours and ends at the teenage wedding of one. Lilia is beautiful, brilliant and creative. She’s envied. Her intelligence surpasses that of her classmates but she’s denied an education. Short and plump Elena is smart but works hard to be Lila’s equal, yet real opportunity never befalls Lilia the way it does Elena.

Boys and relationships with them take centre stage as the girls mature. Elena and Lilia measure their intellect against them and seek to be with them as a sign of their success and popularity. Lila uses her will and talent to try to design a way out of her lot. Just when it seems she’ll be victorious, it all comes crashing down on the day that’s supposed to be one of her happiest.

Ferrante made me feel the betrayal and stinging rage Lila feels in the final pages. Her words are prose. However, from time to time, the translation from Italian was wordy and sentence structures convoluted. The book ends on a cliff hanger that makes you want to pick up the next book in the series.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Five-hundred-forty-four pages, Scribner.

 

f_doerr_allthelight_fMy first thought was, not another book about war. I seem to have read so many for my book club lately. However, just a handful of pages into this Pulitzer Prize winning novel, pre-conceived notions evaporated and I became immersed in Doerr’s vivid storytelling.

This is the tale of a blind French girl and a gifted German boy whose lives intersect during the war. Marie-Laure is a young girl living in Paris with her father at the cusp of Germany’s invasion of France. Six-year-old Marie-Laure is losing her eyesight as her single father does his best to raise her in a world cruel to those with disabilities. He builds a miniature reconstruction of their neighbourhood so she can find her way. Marie-Laure’s blindness doesn’t deter her curious mind and growing intellect. Her days are spent at the Museum of Natural History where her father is a talented locksmith.

The German invasion has the pair scrambling for the relative safety of the walled town of St. Malo where her great uncle lives. Her father appears to be entrusted with an item of extreme cultural importance and monetary value. He hides this object in an intricate wooden puzzle box and takes it with them to St. Malo. Marie-Laure becomes the owner of the puzzle box when her father disappears. The arduous journey to St. Malo is the beginning of an innocent girl’s recruitment into the dangerous resistance movement that at turns risks her life and saves it.

As Marie-Laure’s marvelous story unfolds, we read a parallel tale about a young boy named Werner who lives in an orphanage in Germany. He develops the ability to fix and make radios. His talents at first rescue him from a life of poverty, the destiny that awaits all the children at the orphanage. Gradually, his eagerness to please and brilliant mind end up being harnessed by the brutal Third Reich. Chapter by chapter, events in each character’s life bring them one step closer to their fateful encounter.

Simply told and elegantly written, this tale seized me by the heart as it drew images of goodness, evil and the shifting margin that separates them. Though Marie-Laure is blind for most of the novel, she sees more than others. The ability to sense good and bad saves her when not only does the war turn up on her doorstep but forces itself inside.

While touched by Marie-Laure’s narrative, I was sickened by Werner’s transformation from sympathetic and endearing boy to a Nazi soldier tasked with unspeakable missions. Marie-Laure and Werner’s stories equally crushed my heart and made my spirit soar.

Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple

Where’d You Go Bernadette by By Maria Semple.

Three-hundred-and-thrity pages, Little, Brown and Company.

bernadetteBernadette Fox is someone I’d love to know. She’s the main character in the novel and she’s original, creative, sarcastic, edgy and a little crazy. I just wouldn’t want to be her.

We meet Bernadette as the doting but eccentric mother to impressionable young Bee, a 15 year-old girl attending a tony private school in Seattle. Bernadette doesn’t get along with the other moms who she calls gnats, is a semi-recluse and the wife of a Microsoft star. She spends her days writing in a Gulfstream trailer parked outside her house while her partner climbs to greatness.

When Bernadette promises Bee a trip to Antarctica if she brings home a straight A report card, Bernadette never imagines her daughter could pull it off. She does and the quirky, unorthodox planning, which involves a virtual assistant in India, ensues. But before the epic trip to Antarctica can take place, Bernadette mysteriously disappears and we wonder if she’ll ever return.

Bee’s obsessive search for her mother takes her and her father to the end of the world and back. Much of the book rests on the mother-daughter relationship and unconditional love. You’re more than halfway through the book before you discover Bernadette’s genius and what began her toying with madness.

The droll, laugh-out-loud and at times serious story is told in emails, letters and FBI correspondence among other formats. Author Maria Semple evokes the wit and sarcasm of comedian Ellen De Generes and that’s no surprise since she’s a former writer for the TV show, Ellen, staring De Generes. Semple sends up the Subaru-driving, over-achieving, environmentally-concerned, politically correct, status conscious suburban moms of Seattle to the point of caricature.

I couldn’t put this one down folks. It’s a compulsive read.

Book Review: The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

cellist.jpgPutting a face on the horrors of war and celebrating determination are the hallmarks of the Cellist of Sarajevo. There are actually three faces here and the book’s chapters skip from person to person to person and their individual struggles with the Bosnian war. The three main characters never meet and lead completely separate lives in Sarajevo.

Kenan is a husband and father who is stripped of the ability to work and earn a living. He now fetches fresh drinking water weekly for his family. Each treacherous journey may be his last. Dragan is an older man who has hung on to his job at a bakery and lives with his sister and her family, having sent his own family to safety in Italy. Arrow is an unlikely army recruit; a reluctant sharpshooter who chooses her own targets.

The three protagonists have one thing in common: They risk their lives to watch the cellist of Sarajevo perform Albinoni’s Adagio weekly in a public square. The sad slow piece is the cellist’s personal tribute to the 22 souls who lost their lives standing in line for bread when they came under mortar fire.

This is a fictional account of real life cellist Vedran Smailović who did actually play Albinoni’s Adagio and other classical pieces among the ruins of Sarajevo. That’s where reality ends and Galloway’s imagination takes over as he creates characters living around the unnamed cellist’s weekly performances.

Galloway writes clearly and simply with vivid details of life’s daily struggles in a city under siege but only one character really engaged me and she is Arrow. Galloway delves into her mind to explain her internal conflict with her role in the war. I wanted to know more about her. With Clint Eastwood’s movie American Sniper currently glorified in the media, Galloway’s more complicated, darker and ultimately hopeless portrait has an opposite effect.

For me, Arrow saved this book.

Book Review, The World We Found by Thrity Umrigar

Indian-American author Thrity Umrigar’s The World We Found does for middle-age women what The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants did for teenage girls – use powerful experiences to create ageless friendships. Umrigrar has taken chick lit and steeped it in a potent brew.

world-we-foundThe novel is about how the dying wish of one woman leads to secrets exposed, acknowledging present disappointments and ultimately betrayal.  Armaiti is the character whom the story is centered around. She’s a transplanted Indian who left her country for post-grad studies in the States, ends up marrying locally and builds a life stateside. Her sudden grim prognosis moves her to contact her old college girlfriends back in India, who she hasn’t seen in 30 years, and ask them to visit her. It’s an unlikely beginning but Umrigar’s capable story telling makes it believable.

However, my book club pretty much agreed that we were left not understanding some of the actions and motivations of the leading characters – Armaiti and her gal pals Laleh, Nishta and Kavita. One married rich, betraying the socialist cause they once fought for, another leads a secret life, while the third is lead into an ultra-conservative Muslim existence.

The book is about the journey of overcoming 20 years of separateness and reconciling with choices made in life, rather than a grand reunion. In this book, Umrigar’s story telling is greater than her character building. If strong character development is your preference, then Umrigar’s The Space Between Us is for you.