Friday, 12 May 2017

The Japanese Lover

The Japanese Lover
The Japanese Lover
By Isabel Allende

The Japanese Lover is a love story steeped in history, using San Francisco as a backdrop for its measured progression.

The book opens with Irina, a care aide at Lark House, a seniors’ home in San Francisco.  Irina’s life begins in poverty in her native Moldova.  As an immigrant to the U.S., Irina finds that she thrives caring for elderly people and she quickly becomes the most popular staff member at Lark House.  So popular in fact, that Alma Belasco, a wealthy resident, asks Irina to become her personal assistant during her off-shift hours.  Irina, we learn, has a checkered past, but little is revealed about that for some time.

Once Irina begins working for Alma, the narrative shifts and the main storyline quickly becomes about Alma’s life, which begins in Poland in the 1930s.  Later, as Hitler rises to power, Alma is quickly shipped off to relatives in San Francisco.

She eventually grows attached to the American Belasco family, who raises her as a daughter.  At their Sea Cliff mansion, Alma meets Ichimei Fukuda, son of Takeo, the estate gardener.  A close friendship blossoms, but soon the Fukudas are removed to a Japanese internment camp.

Here the narrative switches tracks again, and we learn of the Fukudas’ life as prisoners on American soil.  A thriving family of five when they enter, the Fukudas’ tragic circumstances create rifts that cannot be healed.

Ultimately, these intertwining storylines lead us to the passionate and undying love between Alma and Ichimei.  Their relationship blossoms as they grow into adulthood, although they are often separated for many years at a time.  But in the mid-twentieth century, interracial and inter-class love is still a taboo that neither lover can overcome.

Both Alma and Ichimei lead separate lives, but never forget the passion they share.  Fast forward to Alma in her eighties.  As Alma, her grandson Seth and Irina revisit her storied life, much is revealed about her marriage and her true love.

Irina’s story reveals itself over time.  There are other characters, not mentioned here, who have stories of their own.  The slow unfolding of the narrative continually made me want to read on.  

If there’s anything lacking in the novel it’s Allende’s reluctance to delve too deeply into the characters’ emotional lives. Nevertheless, The Japanese Lover links family, marriage, love, history and tragedy and kept me interested right up until the end.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and Other Lessons From the Crematory
Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
By Caitlin Doughty

In preparation for Caitlin Doughty's second book I thought I would re-read her first. This member of the Order of the Good Death is a YouTube favourite of mine. I regularly enjoy her Morbid Minutes and Ask A Mortician series.

Doughty writes very much like she speaks, making this an enjoyable read. I recommend watching a few of her episodes of Ask A Mortician before you take out this book so that you can get her voice and tone in your mind before you read.

In Smoke Gets in Your Eyes Doughty takes the reader through the beginning of her carrier as a Mortician. From her start at a crematory through her schooling to become a mortician. Readers learn many of the hidden aspects of the funeral industry; from the corporations behind many funeral homes to how the laws and regulations vary from state to state, traditional burial and natural burial, embalming and cremation and so many other topics that some readers may find hard to face. Doughty has written a clear and educated view of this sometimes taboo subject and she has placed her signature lightheartedness onto every page.

Doughty's use of humour and her complete lack of fear on the subject of death helped me understand sides of death that I didn't even know existed. She breaks down the walls and tells it like it is. One of my favourite chapters is right at the beginning when she gets her first job at the crematory. Doughty describes in detail the process and actually helped to put me at ease. I was one of those people that thought a crematory just threw a bunch of bodies in a big oven and gave the family a bag of random ashes, now I know better, thank you Caitlin!

Whether you are a Deathling or just curious about the funeral industry or maybe you just want to prepare for your own death this book as well as Caitlin Doughty's web series are helpful tools to be enjoyed and learned from.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Minds of Winter

Minds of Winter
Minds of Winter
By Ed O'Loughlin

In 1845, the Erebus, an Arctic exploration vessel captained by Sir John Franklin was lost to the harsh conditions of the North. Neither man nor artifact was ever recovered from this expedition and there has been much speculation about what happened to the ship and its crew. However, historians were stunned by the 2009 discovery of an Arnold Chronometer that was known to be on board the Erebus for this Arctic exploration. The chronometer mysteriously surfaced in London disguised as a carriage clock. 

Such is the premise for the novel, Minds of Winter, by Ed O’Loughlin, who brings us to the North through two modern day characters, Nelson and Fay, each on their own northern expedition of sorts. Nelson is searching for his brother, who has mysteriously committed suicide, but has left extensive research and notes on the various expeditions that set out to find answers to Franklin’s end. Fay comes to Inuvik to trace the life of her grandfather, who has some secretive ties to Northern exploration history. 

The novel switches back and forth between Fay and Nelson’s research and the many expeditions to find the Northwest Passage. Most of the expedition tales are written from the perspective of someone who was on the voyage, which makes it seem more vividly real. I found myself checking from time to time to see if any of the historical characters did in fact live- and many of them did!

In this in depth read, O’Loughlin has conducted a thorough research on the history of these Arctic expeditions and weaves a tale that effectively puts the reader on the ice, experiencing the loss of sanity that must have regularly occurred on these journeys that were so far from civilization in such harsh conditions. The story’s end comes quickly and leaves the reader with a sense of mystery and a sense of wonder at what just happened.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Don't I Know You?

Don't I Know You?
by Marni Jackson

There is a slightly surreal quality to Marni Jackson’s debut novel, Don’t I Know You? A novel broken into short stories, each one following Rose McEwan’s life from 16-60. These stories go through Rose’s  life chronologically, and each one contains a pop culture figure as a central character role  in the story. Whether it is wise words given by Joni Mitchell, a friendly kidnapping by Bill Murray, the best part of each story is Rose’s uncanny ability to describe the weird world she’s living in. 

Jackson is great at setting a scene and there is a languid flow to her words that really carries the reader on and through even some of the confusingly unbelievable celebrity encounters like Bob Dylan as an impromptu, guest-bedroom-crashing mooch. These stories, despite Rose’s recurrent proximity to fame and fortune, aren’t about the glamour and glitz of celebrity, but more of a sort of mundane celebrity fanfiction. And don’t let my use of “fanfiction” deter you either: these stories could exist without the celebrities and they would still be interesting, well-written vignettes. The use of celebrities allows the reader to bring their own characterization into the picture- a sort of shorthand to explore the story without worrying about having to build a character from scratch. Though certainly infused with detail from Jackson’s imagination, we all know a bit about Dylan without having to read much backstory or context. This also gives an intimacy to the storytelling- what would we do if Bob Dylan turned up at our cottage? 

There is a strong humour to Jackson’s choices of how the celebrities turn up in Rose’s life, an almost Wes Anderson-translated-to-the-page offbeatness.

I do think that this book is stronger in the first half than the second, as the stories do get a bit less believable as they go on. Another way to avoid this would be to read the book a few stories at a time, maybe even out of chronological order? Regardless, I enjoyed the writing and the premise is fun and original.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

The Husband’s Secret

The Husband's Secret
The Husband's Secret

The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty

The Husband’s Secret was an unexpected choice for me as I don’t usually seek out mystery, and am always wary of it getting too dark and creepy. Luckily Liane Moriarty filled the bill on a great, suspenseful read. 

A mysterious sealed letter from her husband- to be opened after his death- turns Cecilia Fitzpatrick’s ordered life into a tailspin. Does she open it? Why does her husband act strangely when she mentions it? Doesn’t she know everything about her husband?

Moriarty effectively entwines the lives of three women: Cecilia, Rachel and Tess. Cecilia is the one who thinks she has it all: the put-together stay-at-home society mom with the perfect family, Rachel, still grieving the loss of her daughter 20 years ago, is consumed by the need to solve the murder, and regularly shares her suspicions with the police;  Tess, mother of one, is the owner of her own company and running away from her husband’s betrayal. We learn about each woman in her own voice, from her own point of view.

It seems unlikely that these three women would have any connection to each other, that they would be any more to each other than old school friends, or casual community acquaintances—and especially unlikely that they would be those who are ultimately affected by the secret contained in the letter. However, as the story unfolds and the women discover the secret, they become unexpectedly connected to each other. 

They each face up to the secrets and lies they individually have been holding onto and learn some unexpected truths about themselves and those around them. Their lives are forever changed by the secret: it is simultaneously freeing and confining, and demonstrates how the consequences of our actions affect not only ourselves, but also those around us.

This is a good read for mild mystery seekers. It is full of suspense and unexpected turns that keep you guessing…even when you think you have it all figured out.

For other popular reading suggestions check out Richmond Public Library's Web site at

Thursday, 2 March 2017

The Sisters Brothers

The Sisters Brothers
The Sisters Brothers

By Patrick DeWitt

Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers is an old western with a modern twist.  Even if you don’t like westerns (like me), you might like this one.  Hilarious and grotesque at the same time, The Sisters Brothers is surprisingly funny and doesn’t shy away from a bit of self-reflection.

The callous Eli and Charlie Sisters are legendary as the Commodore’s hired men.  Their mission is simply to find their targets and kill them, no questions asked.

Charlie is the lead man and feels no remorse.  Eli, the more sentimental of the two, senses that there could be more fulfilling careers available to him.  But he has always backed up his brother.  The killing itself seems to come naturally.

Hired to kill Hermann Kermit Warm for reasons they do not need to know, the Sisters brothers go perfunctorily about their business.  Their assignment takes them to California where gold fever has gripped the state.

The brothers live in the seedy underworld of the 1850s.  Throughout their travels they encounter an unappealing and unfortunate cast of characters.  These include a prospector who has lost his mind, a boy whose family has left him for dead (and who temporarily latches onto the indifferent brothers), and the sleazy Mr. Mayfield, proprietor of the town of Mayfield, who surrounds himself with sycophants.

The story is narrated by Eli, who, despite being a cold-blooded murderer, is an endearing character.  Eli would like to fall in love and settle down, and dreams of leaving the nomadic life.  Eli and Charlie live on the fringes, and Eli is looking for a way out. 

His wish may be fulfilled when the brothers learn of a business proposition that could be their salvation.  Like the gold crazed prospectors that populate the hills, Eli and Charlie hatch a plan that they hope will set them up for life.  They have to hustle their way into it, but they’re good at that.  Eli’s growing displeasure at his life of spare brutality is pushing him towards a new path.  Little do Eli and Charlie expect the calamitous mishaps that follow. 

DeWitt has a knack for making ugly realities into comedic episodes – do not underestimate the humour in this grim tale. Entertaining and tragic, The Sisters Brothers is more than a standard western.  As the brothers grapple with their own beliefs, childhoods and futures, these psychopaths reinvent themselves, for better or for worse.