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.

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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.

Death is Swallowed Up in Victory

Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?

Today is the first day of the autumn season. A year ago, I sat in a hospital, swallowing back tears, repeating to myself the lines from that famous psalm, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me.” It was the closest I could get to praying in that moment. I couldn’t keep from crying and a kind nurse sat beside me on the edge of the bed. He brought me tissues and a glass of water, told me it was okay to be scared. He told me how beautiful my little girl was, how lucky I was to have her. He told me that he’d never been able to have children but, later in life, he’d married a woman with two sons and become a dad for the first time. I don’t remember his name and I probably wouldn’t recognize him if I saw him again but I’ve never forgotten his kindness.

The next morning, I held my son for the first and last time. Sixteen weeks old and so amazingly perfect.

A year has passed and while the rawness of pain and grief has dulled, I still think about that little baby every day. This past year has been hard and good and heartbreaking and joyous. Peter and I have held tight to one another and I’m so thankful that we have each other to share all of this life. I’m so thankful for our Pearl and all the life and laughter she brings to us. On my darkest days last autumn, I knew I still had to get out of bed, still had to make breakfast because of her, for her and for my husband. That no matter how broken I felt, my life was still needed and valuable.

I struggled to pray in those early months. We sing a song sometimes at church with a chorus that declares, “How I love You, how I love You, You have not forsaken me” and those words seemed to choke me when we sang it in worship last fall. I could not get them out. I felt that God had forsaken me. I felt like God was not who I thought He was. After a life time of Sunday school answers regarding the goodness and love of Christ, I was painfully confronted with the reality of “Where is God in our pain? Does He still love me”

Pearl has a children’s Bible that sums up the arrival of sin in our world as the moment that people began to question, “Does God love me?” Satan planted this doubt in the minds of Adam and Eve and it has dwelt there ever since. Reading to her one night recently, this struck me as the fundamental fear that took hold of my life last autumn. Does God still love me, even when He allowed this horrible thing to happen to us?

There are a lot of answers to these questions and the scope is greater than I can delve into here. For many months I longed for a large and dramatic reply from the Lord. I wanted to hear His voice, feel His hand. I’ve had those moments before; I had a couple of them in the months following my first miscarriage in 2014. But this time that moment never came.

Instead, people showed up. Friends brought soup. They sent texts and Facebook messages. Friends on the other side of the world made time for phone calls and checked in with me. When the days stretched out in emptiness, others made time for me, often people I didn’t know well. A neighbourhood mom I didn’t know well yet hugged me as I cried at the park. Some of these people are Christians, some are not, but in each one the love of Christ was steadily revealed to me.

There was no miraculous moment where things got better. There isn’t with grief. It is a slow and steady climb that I will still be on years from now. I will always wonder about that lost little one. I will always miss and grieve over what could have been. There is so much I don’t understand about how God works and His purposes. Yet I do believe, with all my soul, that He was with us every step. I believe He used the people around me – which included doctors and nurses and a trained psychologist because those are necessary too sometimes – and He walked those dark days with us. I believe God grieved with Peter and I for our son and I believe that we will be reunited one day beyond this world. What that will look like, I have no idea, but I know that death is not the end.

In early January of this year, walking with Pearl on a grey, cloudy day, I felt at peace for the first time in a long time. The sadness didn’t vanish but it was the moment when I knew I would be okay, that life would continue, that joy and celebration were still a part of that. And life does continue. It was not long after that I discovered I was pregnant again.

I won’t lie: getting pregnant again so soon has made this year much easier. It doesn’t extinguish the sadness but it has made the milestones gentler and it has turned 2017 into a year of hope. I hope to share more of what this pregnancy has been like but today I am almost 38 weeks pregnant and filled with joy at the thought of meeting this new person any day now. My due date is Thanksgiving weekend and it feels very fitting.

Today, one year later, I remember and I grieve for what has been lost. I’ll be thinking of that little one as I wait to meet this new little one currently kicking around in my belly. I am learning to praise God in all things and as the season turns once more, I keep working to turn to Him, to trust Him in all matters. Death has no victory here.

Book Review: The Good People by Hannah Kent

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

With her second novel, Hannah Kent confirms that she is a master of historical fiction. As with Burial Rites (read my review here), Kent uses a true historical story to build her novel around. This time the setting is early 19th century Ireland and the tale revolves around “the good people” – the fairies and the belief in them that is slowly being pushed out by modern thought and religion.

The story focuses on three women. The first is Nora, who we meet on the day that she is left widowed by the sudden death of her husband, Martin. This follows less than a year after their daughter’s death and leaves Nóra as the sole guardian of her grandson, Micheál. Four years old, Micheál has come to Nóra without the ability to walk or talk, though she remembers him as a healthy, thriving toddler. Nóra becomes convinced that the child is a changeling and enlists the help of Nance, an outsider in their small community who understands the good people and their ways and promises to restore Nóra’s grandson to her. Mary, a young girl hired to help Nóra care for Micheál is caught between loyalty to her mistress and concern for the child.

As with Burial Rites, Kent’s descriptions of place and character are strong. Rural Ireland in the 1820s is dirt-filled, smoky, and crowded. Starvation is always close by. People live in close quarters, with each other and their animals. Kent’s descriptions of the daily rituals that survival requires – the building of fires, the milking of cows, the collecting of rushes for the dirt floor are fascinating and add well to the atmosphere without become overwhelming or boring. The story is dark both in place and content. We see the superstition that guides every step of these peoples’ lives. These rituals are very interesting to read from a modern perspective and the novel does well at drawing at the growing tension between these traditional beliefs and the modern world.

While the story is based around the facts of a true historical event, I think it was best to know nothing of the facts before reading the story. Without knowing how it ends, the events are even more compelling (and shocking) as Kent reveals them. Either way though, this is an excellent novel and shows Kent’s growing talent.

Book Review: Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8 by Naoki Higashida

 

Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8 – Naoki Higashida (Random House, 2017)

This collection of short essays (plus an interview and a short story) follows Higashida’s previous book translated into English, The Reason I Jump. I haven’t read Higashida before and while The Reason I Jump may provide some helpful context and personal history, I don’t think it’s necessary to have read it first. It also seems that Higashida has quite a bit more writing that hasn’t yet been translated from Japanese to English.

The introduction by David Mitchell (who also does the translation, along with KA Yoshida) provides an excellent background into Higashida’s story, as well as offering Mitchell’s viewpoint as to why this book is so important. Short version: Higashida was considered severely autistic and non-verbal until a new way of communicating through an alphabet chart was figured out. This new communication revealed Higashida to have a complex and emphatic inner life, exactly like any other young man his age.

Higashida is now in his mid-twenties and his writing is deliberate and thoughtful. The segments are not long as communication, both written and spoken, is not a quick process for him. He offers insights into how his own mind works and methods that help him in his interactions with those around him. Higashida doesn’t suggest that these methods would work for everyone with autism and the book is certainly not a how-to guide. That said, I can’t help but think that it would be a helpful and powerful read for anyone who works or lives alongside someone with autism.

While this is admittedly well outside my field of expertise, it does seem that there have been a few highly publicized stories in recent years of so-called severe autistic people who, it turned out, were fully aware of their surroundings and needed only to find a way to communicate with those around them. And, as Mitchell points out in his introduction, these new found ways of communication revealed that the stereotype of a lack of empathy in those on the autistic spectrum is perhaps a false one.

Higashida certainly writes about the world with a lot of interest and empathy. We get a sense of his frustration at his own behaviours and his strong desire for compassion and patience from  those around him. There is some discussion of styles that didn’t work for him and that he wouldn’t recommend but there is not condemnation toward those who haven’t understood him. His writing about his relationship with his mother seems particularly tender.

The book is a slow read, one to be dipped into here and there rather than read in one sitting. I do believe it’s an important one though, especially for teachers and others who may work alongside autistic people.

Book Review: The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

The Heart’s Invisible Furies follows the life of Cyril Avery, beginning in the 1940s and jumping ahead every seven years and, in doing so, also outlining the history of Ireland in the 20th century and many of the changes it went through.

We begin with Cyril’s mother, publicly cast out of her church, family, and town due to her pregnancy outside of marriage. A teenage girl alone, she heads to Dublin, makes an unexpected friend and gives birth to her son in violent circumstances.

Cyril is adopted by the eccentric Averys, a brilliant and rather emotionally abusive couple who raise him with a sort of benign neglect, frequently reminding him that he’s not a real Avery after all. Cyril forms a close and confusing friendship with another boy, Julian, and over the years we watch their relationship develop as the world around them changes.

The book is very readable with interesting characters. Cyril is likeable and compelling through all his various life stages, despite his sometimes atrodicous behaivours and poor decisions. He is easy to sympathize with, especially as he struggles against the conservative norms of Ireland in the mid-20th century. The novel does not make Ireland look particularly like a place you’d want to live but by the end of the novel, Boyne does give a sense of just how much this country is changing. It is also quite negative toward the Catholic church, without offering much to balance out the sometimes over-the-top portrayals of religious prejudice.

Probably the weakest aspect of the novel is its many coincidences. I came away with the impression of Dublin being very small, simply because Cyril keeps running into the same people over and over again. Through his whole life, he doesn’t seem to branch out much in his acquaintances. At least not until much later, at which point it feels almost jarring because his life changes so much so quickly.

Any book that attempts to encompass nearly a century of history requires a lot of ambition and, I think, Boyne succeeds overall. He falls into a few tropes but the book is entertaining enough that it was an enjoyable read with interesting characters.

Book Review: The Golden House by Salman Rushdie

 

The Golden House – Salman Rushdie (Random House, 2017)

Salman Rushdie’s latest novel begins with the arrival of Nero Golden and his three sons in New York City, on the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration. These four men have appeared in the city under mysterious circumstances, from an unnamed country, with assumed names. They move into a close knit, wealthy neighbourhood with a shared garden and our narrator, Rene, a young and aspiring filmmaker takes an interest in this unusual family.

Over the next eight years, Rene becomes intimately involved with the Golden family and steadily reveals their secrets, their foibles, and their tragedies. The book lends itself easily to comparisons with The Great Gatsby – the narrator located slightly outside of the main action. A young man both drawn in and repulsed by a lifestyle of fabulous wealth. A very rich and powerful man with a mysterious background. Rene becomes far more entangled with the Goldens than Nick ever became with Gatsby but the comparison is apt and no doubt intentional on Rushdie’s part.

I have to admit, I’ve never been able to get into a Rushdie novel before. I’ve tried twice with Midnight’s Children and quickly lost interest. So I went into this one with low expectation but was quickly engaged. Rene is a strong narrator and the rate of revelation works well. While there are definite secrets withheld, it never feels like information is being kept from the reader simply for the sake of creating false tension. I did find Rene rather unlikeable and for the first maybe third of the book wished that it wouldn’t focus on him and his background so much. However, as the story progresses, we see how entwined he becomes with the Goldens and it makes more sense as one over-arching story.

The Goldens are an interesting assortment of characters. Nero, powerful and terrifying with some surprising (and unsurprising) weaknesses. A character who walks the line of a stereotype dangerously closely but never quite crosses over. Petya, the oldest son, brilliant and deeply troubled. Apu, the middle son, artistic and angry. D, the youngest son of a different mother, struggling to find his place in the family and in his own life. They’re each compelling and their stories are fascinating. As time and the novel progresses, both the family’s tale and the world itself become more of a tragedy.

As the Goldens fall apart, so too does their adopted country. A political leader, known only as The Joker, comes to power and the world around Rene quickly changes. The comparison to Donald Trump and the current state of American politics is obvious. While perhaps heavy-handed (The Joker is literally a cartoon villain after all) it makes for remarkably timely commentary. I was reading The Golden House as events unfolded in Charlottesville and it made it all feel extra eery. It will be interesting to see how the novel reads in five or ten years, in the aftermath of Trump’s America.

For a first-time introduction to Salman Rushdie’s work, the book is terrific. I highly recommend it and I would recommend it even more now in our current political climate.

Book Review: The Wonderlings by Mira Bartok

The Wonderling – Mira Bartok (Candlewick Press, 2017)

I didn’t finish reading this book. A few short chapters in, I realized that I was most definitely not the target audience and I simply wasn’t being grabbed by what was happening on the page. That said, I do feel like I can recommend it because Karissa ages 8 – 12 would have loved this book.

Arthur is an orphan groundling – a sort of hybrid animal-human – living under the terrible rule of Miss Carbunkle in a fortress-like orphanage. He is known only as Number 13, shy and quiet and painfully lonely. He befriends a new orphan named Trinket and together they hatch a plan to escape the orphanage and discover where they truly belong.

This is a fantastical, magical, over-the-top type of story that kids who enjoy fairy tales and animal stories will likely love. There are lots of cliches (the orphanage bullies, Miss Carbunkle’s unrelenting evil) that kept me as an adult reader from feeling really immersed in the world Bartok creates, but there’s also lots of creativity and a younger reader would be less likely to notice some of the tropes. There seems to be me to be enough action and mystery to keep a reader engaged, although it clearly didn’t work for me.

I had an Advanced Reader’s Copy of the book but it appears that the final edition will have illustrations, something I think will be a great addition. Bartok really does create a unique little world and it could definitely add a lot to the book to have that visual aspect. If you know a young dreamer/reader, they just might find a lot to enjoy with The Wonderling

What I Read – August 2017

The Bear and the Nightingale – Katherine Arden (Del Rey, 2017)

Teardown – Clea Young (Free Hand Books, 2016)

Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8 – Naoki Higashida (Random House, 2017)

The Golden House Salman Rushdie (Random House, 2017)

Currently Reading:

The Beauty Myth – Naomi Wolf

The Wind is not a River – Brian Payton

The Wonderling – Mira Bartok

Book Review: Himself by Jess Kidd

Himself – Jess Kidd (Atria Books, 2017)

When I think of books to compare Himself to, nothing springs to mind. When I think of how to describe Himself, the first word that comes to me is “Irish”. This book is very Irish. From the setting to the dialogue, maybe even to the mystical elements it contains.

Mahoney, an orphan from a young age, a crook, and a very charming man, returns to Mulderrig, the town he was born in. His mother was a wild young girl who scandalized the town before disappearing with her baby boy. Popular opinion says she got on a bus and left, abandoning her baby soon after, but some in Mulderrig believe that she met a more sinister event and so Mahoney begins to investigate.

He does so with the help of an eccentric, elderly former actress and together they launch a play, using the it as an opportunity to interview the people of the town and to try and piece together what really happened. To further complicate matters, Mahoney sees dead people.

While this might sound like it launches the book into the realm of fantasy, Kidd deftly creates this gift of second sight as a defining characteristic of Mahoney. Without it, he might be just another sleazy, good-looking charmer, flirting with the ladies of the town (who certainly don’t seem to mind). However, Mahoney’s constant visions and interactions with the dead around him lend him a depth and a backstory that make his character all the more fascinating. He is haunted and amused and confused by the dead around him, left wondering why his own mother never appears to him, and how much he can trust or understand the stories they tell him. His own true history is slowly pieced together by his interactions with both the living and the dead and it certainly creates a unique type of mystery story.

As a first novel, Himself is very impressive. While it has its uneven parts, it shows a unique voice and a great deal of creativity and I look forward to seeing more from Kidd.