Wednesday, 12 December 2018

The Best We Could Do



Upon becoming a first time mother, Thi Bui reflects on the lives of her Vietnamese parents.  In an effort to understand her tense relationship with her parents, the author explores her family’s story and recreates it in this beautiful graphic memoire.  During the fall of South Vietnam in the 1970s, her parents made a daring escape to Malaysia to seek refuge from a country in turmoil.  How they came to be on that boat, and how they eventually came to the United States is a much longer and more complicated story that really shines a light on the enduring strength of people in the face of adversity.    

Alternating between periods in each of her parents lives, Bui weaves a story of two separate people who come together to create a family that endures through hardship and works hard to bring better times. The stories of Bui’s parents, Bo and Ma, as children, as a young couple, as new parents, and as refugees, shows amazing growth of character and really humanizes Bo and Ma beyond the label of just being Bui’s parents.  

Beyond the amazing story of two people carting their three children (while Ma is eight months pregnant!) across the seas on a rickety boat, dodging pirates and detection to save their family from the chaos of Vietnam at the end of the Vietnam War, this story exemplifies the hardships parents will endure for their children.  This love is illustrated so beautifully in word and image throughout the book.   While Bui did not grow up in a household where love was expressed verbally or openly on a daily basis, you can see that Ma and Bo did the best they could. 

The Best We Could Do reminded me of Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and Louis Riel by Chester Brown.  All three books use a different medium to convey true stories of people facing resistance from external forces.  The illustrations bring a new dimension to the telling of these stories.

Friday, 16 November 2018

The Thirteenth Tale


The Thirteenth Tale - Setterfield, Diane
The Thirteenth Tale

By Diane Setterfield

“There is something about words.  In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner.  Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts.  Inside you they work their magic.” (p. 8)

Margaret Lea is a bookseller and to her, reading is like breathing or eating; it’s essential to sustain life.  When she is commissioned to write the biography of famous novelist Vida Winter, she wonders why.  Vida has led her followers astray for years, recounting any number of fanciful tales as the story of her life.  All have proven to be false, until now. 

Vida is the quintessential storyteller; like Margaret, she lives and breathes stories. Born into a strange, almost outcast family, Vida is raised in a large house called Angelfield on the English moors. 

Vida’s story begins with siblings Charlie and Isabelle.  Disliked by his father, Charlie is a broken soul who cannot abide the way Isabelle is doted on.  He attempts to take his revenge on her, but shockingly, Isabelle proves as aggressive as her brother and the two form an unnatural bond. 

The next generation at Angelfield, Emmeline and Adeline, are twins who, as children, can only communicate in twin language.  Adeline, like her predecessors, is prone to physical violence which she forces on the submissive Emmeline.

Initially it is unclear where Vida fits in.  As Vida Winter is a pen name, the truth of her parentage unfolds over time.  Indeed the bizarre and somewhat sinister lifestyle at Angelfield involves many other characters and eventually culminates in a mysterious fire that leaves the house in ruins.

Margaret, as biographer, listens to Vida’s unbelievable tale and verifies her facts.  The darkness of the English moors seems to permeate her thoughts as her own family secrets haunt her.  Vida’s story brings Margaret face to face with her own demons, which she must eventually acknowledge.

The Thirteenth Tale is a gothic novel full of windswept landscapes, stormy nights, skeletons in the closet, family betrayals and life-long secrets.  If there was ever a book to read as the rain rages outside, this is it.  Put on some flannels, wrap up in a blanket, and settle into a riveting story, or what Vida Winter would call “[t]he soothing, rocking safety of a lie.” (p.5)

Saturday, 10 November 2018

The Summer Before the War


By Helen Simonson
The Summer Before the War is a slow burning story of the inhabitants of Rye, England at the outbreak of World War I.  Despite the threat of war, in typical British style, the inhabitants of Rye keep calm and carry on.  Focusing on the everyday lives of civilians, The Summer Before the War follows a cast of diverse characters as they juggle their everyday lives with the knowledge that death is just around the corner.

These interesting characters all center on Agatha, a formidable matriarch in the small town of Rye. She has much more immediate concerns than war, like the reputation of a young Latin teacher she has taken under her wing. Beatrice Nash, penniless and alone, is ready to live out the rest of her life in spinsterhood as a Latin professor. With Agatha’s help, she settles into her new job while war threatens to draw away her young students. 

War looms greater still when Belgian refugees are brought to Rye for safety. The reception of refugees was eerily reminiscent of recent refugee crises.  While some people are very open to hosting, there is some hostility among the townsfolk.  Hostility or no, the traumas suffered by the refugees brought a new understanding of the war to Rye. As such, Agatha’s two nephews, a poet and a surgeon, start to feel the call to duty. 

This book definitely grew on me. It starts rather slowly, setting up all the characters and the dynamics of the town; however, by the second half I was desperate to read the next chapter (and the next, and the next!).  Strong female leads, a touch of romance, and British resilience are all on full display, making for an enjoyable and informative read just in time for Remembrance Day. 

Fans of Downton Abbey will enjoy The Summer before the War for its wide range of characters from different social classes. Both stories delve into how the Great War affected civilian lives in small town Britain, one focusing on before the war, the other focusing on after it!

Thursday, 11 October 2018

Our Homesick Songs


Our Homesick Songs
Our Homesick Songs
  By Emma Hooper


The Connors live in Big Running, Newfoundland where, for generations, people have lived by the ebb and flow of the cod fishery.  The sea is their lifeblood.  Emma Hooper masterfully depicts the culture of small town Newfoundland in Our Homesick Songs.

Parents Aidan and Martha can remember when fishing nets used to come up from the depths overflowing with fish, and when the village fishing boats were laden to the gills.  They also remember the first time a net came up only half full.  Now, it’s 1993 and all the fish are gone – completely.  The town of Big Running has been slowly depleted until only six houses are still occupied.

Desperate to maintain their deep connection to home, Aidan and Martha come up with a plan to take turns working out of town.  They go where everyone else does – to the oil patch in Alberta – convincing themselves that this family separation is their only hope.

But fourteen-year-old Cora and ten-year-old Finn feel each parent’s absence keenly.  Each comes up with their own plan to save the family.  Strong-headed Cora decides she must earn her own money in a way that will divide the family even further.  But Finn, steeped in the magic of Big Running, decides he has no other choice but to call the fish back, and devises an elaborate scheme to do so.

This part of the story is interspersed with tales from the past.  Hooper tells of Aidan and Martha in the 1970s as they meet and fall in love.  Life in Big Running at that time is full in every way.  There are plenty of people in town and still plenty of fish in the sea.  No one can imagine that their robust way of life can ever end.

Contrast this with the yearning and desperation of the Connors in 1993, as they cling to a lifestyle that is quickly disappearing.

Our Homesick Songs is filled with the mysticism, stories and music of Newfoundland.  Hooper’s writing is lyrical and poetic. But her biggest triumph is her depiction of a family that must make some very hard choices, but continues to love each other unconditionally.

Highly recommended!

Friday, 5 October 2018

Things Are Good Now



Things are good now tells poignant and thought provoking stories of immigrants and refugees to Canada from East Africa and the Middle East.  From a female ex-freedom fighter struggling with her new reality of cleaning toilets and hospital sheets to a newly adopted young Ethiopian girl facing the horrors of her first Halloween in Canada, the characters portrayed all show the struggles faced by people trying not only to acclimatize in a new land, but also balance their intense longing for home. 

While this book is a collection of individual short stories, there is a thematic connection that ties everything together beautifully. No character reappears in another story, but you can feel a connection between each tale through the tone and experience of the characters. At times this tone is a bit dark; however, there is a lot of hope in the stories as well.

Many of the stories focused on immigrants and refugees from Ethiopia during the Ethiopian Civil War in the 1970s and 1980s. During this conflict, the traumas experienced by civilians, rebel groups, and military personnel alike aren’t easily forgotten when moving to a more peaceful place. Be it survivor’s guilt, or spending too long in circumstances of extreme stress, each character is faced with these hidden struggles while also trying to ‘fit in’ to their new home. 

Djamila Ibrahim is the perfect voice to share this experience. An immigrant from Addis Ababa, a former adviser for Citizenship and Immigration Canada, and a masterful storyteller in her own right, Ibrahim brings forward the struggles one faces when trying to assimilate while also staying true to ones traditions, values, and upbringing.  

If you enjoy reading about the immigrant experience, this collection of short stories is a great read that hits close to home.