Book Review: Lost in September by Kathleen Winter

Lost in September – Kathleen Winter (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017)

“This book is so weird,” was my almost constant thought as I read Lost in September. It wasn’t until I was around three quarters of the way through that I felt I had a handle on what I was supposed to believe/see. Sometimes that made for a frustrating reading experience but overall, Winter handles it with charm and though I began the novel thinking I wouldn’t finish it, I found myself pushing through to find out what was going on.

While I’m not sure the names Wolfe and Montcalm are world renowned, you can’t make it through the Canadian school system without hearing them paired together, along with the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. This battle in Quebec between the French and the English determined the fate of Canada. Ie: why most of us speak English today.

Less known is that a few years before this monumental battle James Wolfe was scheduled to have eleven days leave from his army position. Unfortunately, his leave overlapped with a switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar and those eleven days were lost completely. Wolfe never got his longed for holiday and instead died on the Plains of Abraham.

Lost in September takes place in 2017, where every September Wolfe roams Montreal, heartbroken over what he has lost and searching to replace those eleven missing days. He meets a man dressed all in yellow who has recently regained his sight, a woman writing a book about James Wolfe, and he lives in a tent with a strange sort of guru who may or may not be helping him.

He unfolds for us his strange and co-dependent relationship with his mother, his intense friendships with the men he served with, and his very subdued love affair with his former fiancee. All while wandering through Montreal, wondering how it can still be so French when the English won the battle, and avoiding a visit to a certain Madam Blanchard. Surely, these are the ramblings of an insane man, right? There’s no way James Wolfe himself is spending September 2017 in Quebec.

The truth, while apparent throughout, is skillfully revealed and all possibilities are thrown into question. Wolfe (or Jimmy as he’s sometimes called) is an increasingly sympathetic character because whether he’s Wolfe come back to life or a mentally disturbed homeless man, Winter imbues him with glimmers of clarity and intelligence. Whatever has happened to him, this wasn’t always who he was and the reader longs for him to be restored to the life he should have had. After all, this is a book all about alternate realities.

While the story of Wolfe may be unfamiliar to non-Canadian readers, I think the story in and of itself here in Lost in September is strong enough to engage even those who might be new to the Battle of the Plains of Abraham or uninterested in history. Just be prepared, this book is so weird.

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Book Review: The End We Start From by Megan Hunter

The End We Start From – Megan Hunter (Hamish Hamilton, 2017)

I wasn’t sure about reading this short novella, about a woman who has a baby as London is flooded and she is forced to flee her home, while at home with my own newborn baby. The good news is the book is not disturbing or upsetting. The bad news is it’s not much of anything.

There’s a very particular style that Hunter is using here and it doesn’t work for me. The whole book is so vague that it read like the outline of a novel that had yet to be written. There’s no dialogue, all of the characters are identified only by letters (a pet peeve of mine), and it seems like an exercise in defying the “show, don’t tell” rule. It’s all tell, no show.

The narrator and her husband R have become first time parents to Z. At the same time, unprecedented flooding hits London and they are forced to evacuate. They move in with R’s parents, N and G, and there are apparently food shortages and riots but the narrator and Z mostly just hang out at home. Then something happens and G is gone and then later something else happens and N is gone too. Seriously, that’s about as much information as we’re provided with.

From there, this little family spends time in a refugee camp and R leaves after a while because he can’t be, like, hemmed in, man and he has to be free. Or something like that. It’s hard to tell how much our narrator really cares.The story has zero character development and even though what’s being described is traumatic, the stakes are so low and I just cared so little because I felt like I couldn’t visualize what was taking place and I didn’t care about these characters.

The book is short (I read it in two late night nursing sessions) so not much of a time commitment. To be fair, there are glimmers of potential when Hunter actually bothers to describe things but it’s hard to say if there is much more there. I couldn’t tell you whether or not Hunter is good at creating characters or tension because none of it is present.

Book Review: How to Breathe Underwater by Julie Orringer

How to Breathe Underwater – Julie Orringer

This collection of short stories focuses primarily on adolescent girls. The stories are compelling and readable and not at all familiar with my experience of being a teenage girl. Which isn’t to say that they don’t ring true but by the time I got to the end of the collection, it felt like the intensity of the stories as a whole was a bit artificial.

These are young girls with a lot of life experience. There is violence, sex, drug use, guns, death. And while no one story feels over the top, all together it kind of does. In the end, this is probably a story collection best read with long breaks in between each story.

Many of the stories are told from – and feel like they’re told from – an adult perspective. There is an omniscience and distance from the events themselves that feels more adult. Even the first person stories lack the chaotic urgency of a teenager relating something traumatic that happened to them. For the most part, I appreciated this and Orringer makes it work. She does play with form a little, including one story in the second person. (Not my favourite narration or my favourite story but I appreciate the effort.) The stories have a sort of feeling of an adult wishing they could go back and warn their younger self. And after all, isn’t that something we’ve all wished we could have done?

 

 

Reading with Pearl: Train Edition

Some of Pearl’s favourites.

I’m not sure that Pearl has ever actually seen a train but she sure seems to enjoy stories about them. And there seem to be multiple classic children’s books revolving around trains. Our story selection tends toward mid-20th century and I’m having trouble thinking of more modern train stories. Any suggestions?

Pearl’s favourite of these currently is probably The Little Red Caboose. We found that one at a Goodwill in Portland and Pearl and I curled up in a chair in the furniture section to read it over and over again while Peter looked at clothes. The pictures are pretty outdated (one page definitely borders on the offensive) but the story is sweet and simple and has a nice rhythm to it.

On the other hand, Peter and I don’t love the story of Tootle which seems to preach the message of “stay in your lane and don’t try and be different”. Fortunately, Pearl seems to like it most for the pictures and I can understand that when some of them are of a train wearing a crown of daisies and frolicking in a field.

I’m a big fan of Bill Peet’s work and Pearl has just started to enjoy some of his stories. The Caboose Who Got Loose is a rhyming story with a happy ending and while longer than the others, I enjoy reading it.

Any recommendations for train stories out there? Especially anything from the 21st Century!

Book Review: All We Leave Behind by Carol Off

All We Leave Behind – Carol Off (Random House Canada, 2017)

One of the signs of a compelling book for me is when I want to tell other people all about it. Or when I lay awake after reading it, thinking over various parts. All We Leave Behind did both.

Carol Off is a well-respected CBC journalist with a long career. (For those non-Canadians, that’s the Canadian Broadcast Corporation and it’s generally well regarded.) While reporting in Afghanistan in 2002, shortly after 9/11, Off interviewed an Afghan man named Asad who spoke out, on camera, about corruption and particularly against one of the warlords being enabled by US involvement. Because of Asad’s bold statements, made in hopes of change being possible in his country, his life and the lives of his family are eventually in danger and they are forced to flee Afghanistan.

Off begins the novel with an early experience as a reporter in Pakistan, one that taught her, Be careful what you wish for and reminds us that sometimes a journalist’s best story is the worst day of someone else’s life. It’s a strong way of establishing the conflict that many journalists feel. How do you report a story in a neutral manner? How do you stay objective in the face of suffering? And when do you get involved.

When Asad and his family escape Afghanistan and Off realizes that it was her reporting that put them in danger, she becomes involved in bringing them to Canada as refugees, crossing many professional boundaries but believing that it’s the right thing to do.

The book does a superb job of outlining Afghan history, both in a broad sense but also through focusing on Asad’s life and that of his family. We witness the changes the country goes through from the 1970s until present day and the influences of the rest of the world. Off provides the right amount of information so that someone relatively unfamiliar with Afghan history is able to follow along and I never felt lost or bogged down in the historical context. Off doesn’t spare feelings and doesn’t always shy away from naming names. She can be scathing in her denouncements of US involvement but she doesn’t let Canada off the hook either.

The second part of the book focuses on Asad’s struggle to first be recognized as a refugee and then to be accepted into Canada. Off definitely shows her political leanings here, outlining the ways that Harper’s Conservatives failed in a refugee crisis, as she details how Asad and his family struggled through the bureaucracy and redtape, floundering in the system for years while their lives were in danger. I get the sense that Carol Off and I are on similar sides of the political spectrum, so these strong opinions didn’t bother me but I imagine they may turn off some readers. (That said, if you know Off from her work with the CBC, you might not be surprised.)

As a Canadian, it was a harsh reminder that we are not always the peaceful, helpful nation we view ourselves as and that our hands have not remained clean in conflict worldwide. Even if our government tries to tell us we have. The book ends in late 2015 and it’s encouraging to think of how many Syrian refugees have been brought into Canada since then. At the same time, All We Leave Behind is a powerful lesson that many more are languishing in camps, turned back from safe borders, or perishing before they reach safety.

While this book will primarily be of interest to Canadians (and probably Canadians who find their ideals already align with Off’s), I think it would be a great read for anyone wanting to know more about either Middle East conflict or the experience of refugees. It’s well-written and informative and a topic that is only becoming more important in our current political climate worldwide.

Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

The Bear and the Nightingale – Katherine Arden (Del Rey, 2016)

Someone recommended this book to me and I was drawn in by the lovely cover and was excited to read this story based on Russian myth and lore. While it didn’t match my high expectations, it was a readable and enjoyable story and a twist on a fairy tale that might not be familiar to North American audiences.

This is medieval Russia – cold and barren, Christian but still steeped in the superstitious lore of tradition. Vasilisa is the youngest daughter of a wealthy family, the child predicted to bear the unique talents of her mysterious grandmother. She is a wild young girl, preferring to be outdoors, seeing things that others don’t. The family and the peasants under them honour the old mythical creatures and the stories that are told of them and so are protected from the harsh winter and nature of the world around them.

All of this changes when Vasilisa’s father re-marries. Her stepmother is deeply religious and forbids the old ways and the region quickly falls into chaos, death, and starvation without the protections of the old household gods. It is up to Vasilisa to defend both the mythical tbeings and her family as an even greater threat lurks closer.

Is this book great literature? No. But it’s fun and fantastical and the peek at Russian mythology made for an interesting read. It is the first book in a trilogy but I can’t say I have much desire to continue on with the other books. To be honest, that’s a point in the novel’s favour for me because it does have its own complete ending and wraps up the story plot while still keeping room for the next book. I’m happy to enjoy it on its own but if this book truly grabs you, there is room for more of Vasilisa’s adventures.

 

What I Read – September 2017

(My dad felt that my summer reading level had dropped off so I have done my best to boost my numbers this September. However, please keep your expectations low for October.)

The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters: The Jolly Regina – Kara LaReau (Amulet Books, 2017)

The Good People – Hannah Kent (Little, Brown, 2017)

The Wind is not a River – Brian Payton (Ecco, 2014)

How to Breathe Underwater – Julie Orringer (Vintage, 2003)

All We Leave Behind – Carol Off (Random House Canada, 2017)

Lost in September – Kathleen Winter (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2017)

Didn’t Finish:

The Wonderling Mira Bartok (Candlewick Press, 2017)

Currently Reading:

The Beauty Myth – Naomi Wolf

Bellevue Square – Michael Redhill

Reading with Pearl: Bunny Edition

Some of Pearl’s bunny books

If you ask Pearl currently what she wants to be when she grows up she will gleefully tell you, “A bunny!” This is mostly due to the book on the top left, When Bunny Grows Up. Regardless, bunnies are popular in our household and Pearl’s book collection reflects that. When Bunny Grows Up and Home for a Bunny are two of her very favourite books right now. In fact (mom brag coming), she can tell you page by page what happens in Home for a Bunny. (Spoiler alert: The ending involves two bunnies, which is very exciting for Pearl.) I found both of these Golden books at our local thrift store and was thrilled to find some lesser known works from Margaret Wise Brown, Garth Williams, and the Scarrys.

Nobunny’s Perfect by Anna Dewdney has been a good way to remind Pearl of manners, something we’ve worked on more and more as she gets older. Lately she’s been quite good with her “please” and “thank you” but we’re still learning about being gentle with other people. (Pulling hair and poking faces hurts!) The sweet pictures and the rhyme make it less of a nagging reminder and more of a fun story.

And, of course, Peter Rabbit is always a classic. This isn’t actually Pearl’s favourite Beatrix Potter – that honour goes to Jeremy Fisher – but she does seem to enjoy it and I like having the abridged version when I feel like I just don’t want to read the whole thing over again. And again. (I’ve read all of these books many, many times.)

Any bunny favourites in your households?

Book Review: The Wind is Not a River by Brian Payton

The Wind is not a River – Brian Payton (Ecco, 2004)

In this novel, Brian Payton explores a lesser known portion of World War II history – the Japanese invasion of Alaska. At least, this was unknown to me and I consider myself decently informed.

Our main character is John Easely, a journalist who has snuck his way into the Aleutian Islands where the native peoples have been either captured by the Japanese or forcibly evacuated by the Americans. The region is closed to media and the story is unknown in the rest of the world. The novel opens with Easely surviving a plane crash but not knowing if he’ll survive in the hostile environment. Hostile both because of the Japanese soldiers and the physical environment.

The story alternates chapters with our second main character, Helen Easely, John’s wife. The pair parted on poor terms but love each other dearly. After weeks go by without word from John, and little information is provided about what’s really happening in Alaska, Helen decides to take matters into her own hands and follow John to Alaska through any means available.

By focusing on a part of modern history unfamiliar to most readers, Payton automatically creates interest. Which helped me get through the early chapters of the book where I didn’t feel that attached to what was going on. There’s a lot of drama in Easely’s situation but Helen’s chapters mostly seem to focus on her job and her elderly father’s illness, neither of which are particularly compelling. As Helen moves towards finding out where John is, her story becomes more interesting and I found myself enjoying it more. This was a part of history that was more familiar but still something I hadn’t read about in fiction. While John’s survival is compelling, it does get repetitive and for much of the book he seems to do the same things over and over again, with varying degrees of success.

There is a kind of side story (where the title of the novel comes from) that has potential but is underdeveloped and ends up feeling unattached and strange compared to the rest of the story. Unfortunately, the ending hinges around this secondary story and characters and so I found it quite unsatisfying. There’s also a lot alluded to or mentioned in passing about the peoples of the Aleutian Island and I would have loved to learn more but Payton doesn’t delve further into it.

Overall, the novel ended up feeling like it could have used another draft or a bit more polishing. There’s a strong potential here but it’s not quite fulfilled.

Book Review: The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters (Book One): The Jolly Regina by Kara LaReau

I bought this book as a gift for a seven-year-old I know so the true test will be whether or not she enjoys it. In the meantime, here are my thoughts.

Jaundice and Kale are sisters who enjoy looking at wallpaper, watching grass grow, and eating plain cheese sandwiches. Their parents went out to run an errand several years ago but the Bland sisters are sure they’ll be back soon. They’re perfectly satisfied with their lives of darning socks and reading their favourite book, the dictionary. This is interrupted one day when a stranger knocks on their door, tosses them in a burlap sack, and takes them aboard a pirate ship.

The Jolly Regina is no ordinary pirate ship though. This is a crew of lady pirates, tough and fearsome. Jaundice and Kale are forced to swab the decks, eat terrible stew, and stand in direct sunlight. They are not interested in adventures but are slightly more interested in the fact that these pirates seem to know what happened to their parents.

The story was an easy and fun read. There are several references that might be over the heads of a young reader but the plot and characters of the book are so ridiculous that I think kids would really enjoy it. There is quite a bit of language that a younger reader would probably be unfamiliar with but perhaps that could be a great opportunity for them to delve into their own dictionary.

This is clearly the first in a series (though #2 has not yet been released) and so the ending is rather unsatisfying. (Dare I say, bland?) Personally, I probably won’t be going on to read the next book but I hope my young reader will enjoy The Jolly Regina enough to pursue the further adventures of Jaundice and Kale.