Saturday, December 14, 2013

Review of Saara's Passage by Karen Autio

Saara's Passage (Trilogy, #2)Saara's Passage by Karen Autio
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Saara's Passage by Karen Autio, a contemporary Canadian writer, is the second in a well-written, impeccably researched trilogy which features young teenager, Saara Maki, a recent immigrant with her family from Finland to Canada in the early years of the last century. Autio's characters are vivid 3-D creations, each one, adult or child, deeply imagined and with distinct voices. The use of dialogue is true to the era, incorporating Finnish words, and is especially good, at least to my ear, but I grew up with two immigrant parents in a rural community of immigrants so I think I am attuned to voices in this way and appreciate pitch-perfect notes when I hear them, as in this book. Another strength is the weaving of weighty issues like the sinking of the Empress of Ireland (a central fact of the first book in the trilogy), Saara's experience of what we now know as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after surviving the sinking, the hardships faced by immigrant men and the effect on their families when they tried to form unions to resolve dangerous and exploitative workplace issues,the devastation caused by tuberculosis in Canada and the long and imperfect methods of treatment, the struggle for immigrant children to adapt to schools with English as a second language... all these issues are central and substantial but are woven skillfully into the narrative itself.

This is a book which should be on school library shelves and is also that rare thing, a book which readers aged ten to one hundred and ten can enjoy, especially if they love "olden times", Canadian history or have northern European roots. But there will be many new immigrants who will read this and recognize themselves in this story of a sturdy young girl who puts her family before a starring role in a school play and who tries to do the right thing, hard though that may be. Tuberculosis is far from being eradicated in the world in 2013. Being an immigrant is tough no matter where you end up. Dealing with mean girls at school and having crushes on boys, well, these are timeless or universal themes, are they not?! I highly recommend it.

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Saturday, November 16, 2013

Review of Mohsin Hamid's novel, How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (Riverhead Books/Penguin: 2013)

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising AsiaHow to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

If you haven't read Mohsin Hamid yet, you are in for a master class in structure, from sentence structure to building characters complete with blocks and open doors to an assured yet risky narrative point of view to the very structure of this slyly misnamed novel itself. Hamid astonishes with every new book. I loved The Reluctant Fundamentalist as well but in this novel, the born storyteller provides the gritty details of an impoverished young man's journey as the "clever boy" of a poor man's village family to a city gang member of sorts and then, to a self-made man peddling that most precious commodity, water, to become a very wealthy man at last. Yet he does this not by plodding along from point A to point B but by including the reader, the two main protagonists, the urban sprawl of the city - another character, itself - sweeping from point of view to point of view with great panache and great tenderness for the struggles of humanity.

Hamid weaves the reader (picture yourself on the back of an underpowered, speeding motorcycle somewhere in Asia)through the mean streets of an unnamed city and structures this novel along the lines of a business book, a bestselling one eagerly read by young Asian men, most certainly. His chapter titles reflect the advice pertaining to his main character and to us all: Move to the City (I reflected on this as I've had the same advice for becoming more successful as a writer, i.e., move to Toronto, hang out with the literati, stalk an agent like clammy fiends seem to do, etc. ad nauseum & no thanks, Get An Education (did that but didn't like the straight-jacket jobs available to the likes of me...)Don't Fall in Love (woops, did that, tossing jobs aside, fireworks, etc. too), Avoid Idealists (oh heck, clearly I wasn't destined for wealth as nearly all my best friends are fervent idealists of one stripe or another) Learn From a Master phew, did that one well at least, learning from wonderful masters of writing at a real writing school run by working contemporary writers, Work For Yourself yes! take the risk, go to the wall for another kind of education which is still about being of service, risk the slings & arrows of stupid, mean people and the accolades of kind, wise people and get out alive Be Prepared to Use Violence okay, this option doesn't apply as range wars and bookselling vendettas aren't in the same league as Hamid's protagonist Befriend a Bureaucrat hold your nose, only if you must and there are many good souls among them, ground into a quivering pulp by the demands of John Q. Public and his charming wife, Susie Patronize the Artists of War possibly one of the best chapters in a superlative book of chapters, required reading Dance With Debt been there, done that, didn't like it but some have a higher tolerance of risk than others Focus on the Fundamentals brilliant advice, applicable to those who have lost their wealth or must live on a fixed budget, kind of a Get Smart At Least or At Long Last chapter before Have An Exit Strategy which is where we all must get to in as dignified a manner as we can muster.Hamid's advice can only be described as a compassionate cri de coeur, simply beautiful.

Oh, and it's also a wonderful love story, an eloquent case study of the pros and cons of family nepotism as a society safety net and a brilliant expose of the inner workings of military/industrial/governmental corruption in Asia. Definitely one of my Top 10 Novel recommendations for 2013.

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Thursday, August 15, 2013

Review of Honey Cake by Joan Betty Stuchner

Honey CakeHoney Cake by Joan Betty Stuchner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

View all my reviews Even though this 88 page chapter book was meant for 8-11 year olds, I read it with great interest since I knew next to nothing about WW2 in Denmark and because this book has won literary prizes in Canada like the Red Cedar Award, chosen by children themselves. It takes a profoundly subtle and skilled writer to achieve a balance between (extra-Grimm) content, (WW2 Europe)context, vocabulary and interest level appropriate for this age group. Stuchner delineates the ever-present fear of adults who try their utmost to maintain cheerful normality so that their children will enjoy some semblance of carefree childhood and yet not jeopardize their own lives. I empathized with the longing of a nine year old boy for a toy train set for his tenth birthday and cheer on the clandestine bravery of a sister barely out of her teens active as a member of the Danish Resistance movement. I was very moved by the dignified bravery of King Christian X in the face of the Nazi invaders and the unusual solidarity of Christians and Jews in Denmark...and the helping hand of Sweden, who accepted many Jewish refugees, especially because my Dutch mother lived through WW2 as a teenager and has horrific stories of neighbours betraying neighbours to the Nazis. The lives of two caged budgies are deftly woven into the novella as a telling metaphor and the droll black and white drawings by award-winning illustrator Cynthia Nugent enhance the 'not so childish' tone and content of the book. Highly recommended. One of those books that children, teens (like my 18 year old niece who read it at one sitting and enjoyed it) and adults can all read and relate to.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

One Grateful Reader's Response to Louise Erdrich's novels

The Master Butchers Singing ClubThe Master Butchers Singing Club by Louise Erdrich
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Louise Erdrich is a writer I am grateful for and I will simply list the ways she enriches my reading and writing life: great emotional intelligence, big sweeping symphonic American history, native American tragedy and comedy in pitch perfect notes, and her women are flawed and wonderful and wicked and unforgettable, her men are sweet and wounded and miserable and fabulous, children are tough and resilient and damaged and lovable, every animal has a presence and trots across the pages with a purpose, small towns are presented as they absolutely are with everyone knowing or inventing everyone else's life stories, the vagaries of the weather are present every day, as they are in real life but not in airless urban novels. In her books, like this masterpiece, we taste and smell and feel and worry and cheer for her food and her people and all of the rich feast she sets out for us with every book.
Because she is a poet, her language is varied and interesting and my inner ear tracks the flow of every character's "voice print" without losing track even once of who is speaking or dreaming.
As a writer, I alternate between wanting to just read wonderful books to escape the hard work of writing or to be inspired by fine minds like this author's, to get busy on my own manuscript underway. Happily, I can manage both. The Master Butchers Singing Club

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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Review of House Calls By Dogsled: Six Years in An Arctic Medical Outpost by Keith Billington

House Calls by Dogsled: Six Years in an Arctic Medical Outpost By Keith Billington

Highly recommended reading for anyone with experience in front line medical services, anyone who has volunteered or worked overseas in challenging conditions or those who yearn for Arctic adventures...and may be limited to the warmth and stability of their armchairs, not quite up to running behind a frisky dog team on snowshoes.<>

The Billingtons, both trained nurses in Britain, with midwifery certification for Muriel and additional dental, X-ray and other must-have training taken once in Canada, signed up for a two year stint in Fort McPherson on the Mackenzie Delta. They arrived in mid-September, 1964, and with the boundless optimism and energy of those barely in their twenties, they began their familiarization with the Nursing Outpost Station and soon, the harsh winter conditions.<>

What shines through this book is their rational, non-judgmental intelligence, cheerful natures, willingness to learn all kinds of skills and social customs from the Gwich'in people, and the sheer joy in living a life they could only imagine as they read adventure stories as children. This is not a world-weary travelogue as delivered, with polished literary panache, by the likes of Paul Theroux or Bruce Chatwin. This is the stuff of CUSO volunteers and Peace Corps who sign up for their two year stints to work and live in rustic conditions, adapting to new customs and learning more than a little of a new language. They are not afraid to show their own tears when a baby dies and to marvel at the dignity of the Gwich'in parents who shake their hands- with one firm, characteristic shake- and who thank them for all they did.<>

We are treated to the last decade of a traditional way of life, before satellite TV and snowmobiles altered the hardy northerners' work and leisure. The accounts of getting lost with a dog team en route to a smaller village in -55 F and of arriving at a bush camp with a baby in diapers are storytelling classics. The Billingtons, who were obviously much-loved and respected, stayed for six years and began their own family with two children while in the Mackenzie Delta.<>

Maybe it's because I had an aunt who was a Red Cross Outpost Hospital nurse in the 30's and 40's in Kyuquot and Cecil Lake, B.C. that makes this book resonate for me or because I've always wanted to kayak down the Mackenzie River to the Arctic Ocean...but in any case, this is a thoroughly enjoyable, life-affirming, makes-me-proud-to-be- Canadian sort of book!<>

Sunday, February 17, 2013


Gubby Builds a BoatGubby Builds a Boat by Gary Kent
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Gubby Builds A Boat by author Gary Kent, illustrated by artist Kim La Fave is a beautifully produced hardcover, over-sized graphic novella which may appeal more to adults, especially young and old East and West Coast folk with commercial fishing in their family history.

Gubby is the Grandpa, an old salt fans may remember from the surprise (to some) best-seller and instant coastal classic, Gubby Catches a Fish. In this book, he realizes his old gillnetter, wonderfully named Flounder has come to the end of her many decades of fishing on the British Columbia coast. So, with grandson in tow, he heads off to Steveston, a once-thriving boat-building and commercial fishing community. There he tracks down one remaining wooden boat builder,his old friend Minoru. Gubby and Minoru proceed to build the Flounder Too in the traditional Japanese pattern, pushing to meet a March deadline.

All the accurately portrayed details of choosing the materials and building the boat, the insertion of visual gags involving a cat and a dog, among others, showing the passage of time by adding the kid-friendly depiction of Halloween in a coastal village, followed by a classic and wonderful Christmas, complete with elves and gifts for an orphanage,and the final launch party all combine to give us a fine tribute to the labour and finesse of boat-building. And as with good wooden boats, there is heart and soul embedded in every line on every page, soaked in a subtle coastal palette of greys and greens, save for Gubby's red shirt. A nautical treasure of a book, one to keep and to reread.

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