"The Boy on the Beach"

The Boy on the Beach by Tima Kurdi

Written by the aunt of the little boy washed up on shore in that now famous picture that went viral a few months ago, this book was as agonizing to read as the picture was to look at. I'm glad I read it, but I certainly can't say I liked it. It was painful and I hated every page, but it showed me some things I'd never seen before and they were things I needed to see. I do recommend it and hope a great many people will read it, especially we who live on safe streets, in safe homes filled with food and running water and heat and furniture, we who have no idea at all what life lived in day to day fear, cold, hunger and danger is like. We need to understand more about that life, and to know that it could also happen to us.  

"Wallis: The Novel"

Wallis: The Novel by Anne Edwards

I've always been fascinated with Wallis Warfield Simpson. It seems you'd have to be a spectacular kind of woman for a man to abdicate the throne of England for you. I'd like to know what makes her tick, what her motives were, how she so completely enthralled the King that duty and service to his country took second place to her. 

Unfortunately, this book didn't do that for me. It is fiction, so bare facts, dates, and places would naturally be filled out with made-up dialogue and thoughts that may or may not have actually ever been in her head. It's always weird reading fictional biographies: you have no idea what to believe and what to ignore. 

In this one I'd have to say the author doesn't much like Mrs Simpson. She's painted as a social climber, gold-digger, promiscuous, incapable of deep relationships, and all 'round not very nice person. I think we are meant to have some sympathy for her in light of the difficult life she had growing up, but it's hard to feel sorry for someone who used everyone she knew for what they could do for her. She asked relatives for money constantly and was usually accommodated. When she was being introspective, she didn't see herself as promiscuous, yet she slept with five other men while she was still married. And she was quite disapproving of adultery on a philosophical level, which makes you wonder just how in touch with her own reality she actually was. 

The Wallis Simpson of this novel is not likable at all. And who knows, maybe this author got it right and Mrs. Simpson really didn't have any redeeming qualities. Because it's fiction, it's impossible to know what's real and what isn't. 

I think I'll try a biography or two and see what they have to say about her, but as far as this one goes, I can't recommend it. There were too many things that didn't make sense (like it being emphasized that she was completely broke, then the next thing you know she's buying a ticket to sail across the pacific ocean from China to California with no mention of where the money came from), and too many times she got whatever she wanted because things just kept falling into her lap. And truly, could anybody really be as shallow as the woman portrayed here? Come to think of it, I don't think I found a character to admire in the entire book. 

Disappointing, unbelievable, and even boring at times, this one only gets a 1 out of 5 from me.  

"Station Eleven" and "Bel Canto"

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Loved this book! I'm not usually a fan of dystopian literature, but there's something about this one. It begins with a worldwide epidemic that wipes out most of humanity, but it doesn't wallow in that dark, gritty misery we usually get in this genre. There is some of that of course, how could there not be, and the few who survive have to deal with all kinds of difficulty as they try to bring some kind of meaning back into their lives, but they do it. Shocked by their circumstances, terrified at times, they are still determined to survive as long as they can, and they use all the skill and imagination they have to do that. It's a great story, tragic yes, but hopeful, with well written, relate-able, characters. Highly recommended.

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

I bought this book because the title appealed to me and it turned out to be a good decision because it's a fascinating read. It's set in a small foreign country where an opera star is entertaining at an extravagant birthday party in the home of the Vice-President. In the middle of the party, a group of heavily armed terrorists storm in through windows and doors, intending to kidnap the President and make a clean getaway. But the president is not at the party, and now the terrorists are stuck with a room full of hostages and no plan. The story is far from the typical tv-type hostage drama. This one examines human relationships, and how people from completely different backgrounds, with varying worldviews, can make authentic connections in even the most precarious, and strange, circumstances. It's full of wonderful characters, in a story that is not only compelling, but quite beautiful. A must read.   

"The Avenue"

The Avenue by R.F. Delderfield  (Vol.1-The Dreaming Suburb, Vol.2-The Avenue Goes To War)

At 1100 pages, this novel needs a serious time commitment, but I was sick with bronchitis for almost 4 weeks, so I had nothing but time. It was the perfect, easy-to-read, get-lost-in-someone-else's-life, book that I needed under those circumstances.

It took a bit of time to get into it but that may have been mostly about how miserable I was feeling at that point. By the end of the first book I was eager to get into the second, and by the end of the second I was in love with the avenue and it inhabitants.

As the title suggests, the book is about the people living on a particular avenue in the suburbs of London, England. The Dreaming Suburb covers the years between the two world wars, when the characters who people this novel were children or young adults. This is where you learn their history, the events that shaped their characters and influenced their behaviour. The Avenue Goes to War begins in 1940, when bombs are being dropped on the avenue and life is changing dramatically for everyone. Some suffer, some profit, in the way war has of randomly choosing its victims. Some of the bad survive unscathed, some of the good lose everything. The true survivors grow in courage and humility, becoming people you wish you could have known.

I couldn't have asked for a more readable novel to get me through the past few weeks. It's not great literature, but it certainly is a good story, well told.

"River Thieves"

River Thieves by Michael Crummey

I didn’t like this book. I did like certain things about it, but if you asked me if I liked it overall I’d have to say no. I'm not saying it isn’t a good book – I’m not qualified to judge that – it just didn’t appeal to me. I do like his writing; his novel, Sweetland, is one of my favourite books.

Crummey's descriptions are wonderfully vivid. You can smell the forest and feel the cold of a Newfoundland winter. I love the setting: the ocean, the snow, the ice, the forest, the whole wild, harsh, landscape. I also appreciated the history lesson - early 19th century trappers and fishermen from Britain living and working in Newfoundland, contributing to the decline and eventual extinction of the Beothuk Indians. It lead me to do some further research which introduced me to a chapter of Canadian history I knew nothing about.

I didn’t like any of the characters - even the ones I might have liked felt distant. I admit they were believable, each one revealing light and dark in their natures, but they all seemed to make terrible choices, destructive to themselves and everybody else. The story is based on historical fact but it is told with such violence and brutality, it left me feeling like the whole human race is beyond hope. It is grim. 

So, while I do very much enjoy Michael Crummey's writing, I did not enjoy this book.

"The Return Journey"

The Return Journey by Maeve Binchy

I'm not much of a short story fan, but I love Maeve Binchy's story telling style. Since there won't be any more novels, I thought I'd give this a shot. The stories are quite short, tiny snippets of people's lives dealing with a particular situation, sometimes covering a mere few hours and yet each one feeling complete. And they are absolutely wonderful. The characters are poignantly real and their problems ordinary and familiar, but as always she manages to make them fresh and fascinating. It's a small book filled with tiny, delicious slices of life, highly readable and very satisfying.