"Relative Happiness" and "The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper"

Relative Happiness by Lesley Crewe

There's almost nothing I can say about this book that is positive, so I won't say much at all. The story stretched credibility too far and the writing was disappointing. In my opinion it needed a lot more editing; I don't understand how it got published as it is. It is a first novel, and maybe her subsequent novels are better, but nothing in this one made me want to try them. Wish I had better things to say, but I did not enjoy it.

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick

This one is about a man who loses his wife, then finds among her things a charm bracelet he'd never seen before. He undertakes various adventures to find the story behind each charm, and in the process discovers his wife had a life before they met that he knew nothing about. It's a sweet story, if a bit far-fetched - or maybe a lot far-fetched. Arthur is a lovable character though, and it was a nice light read before tackling The Brothers Karamazov.

"The Reef"

The Reef by Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton, who was the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize (for The Age of Innocence) is one of my favourite writers. I've read several of her novels - Summer, Ethan Frome, The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence, and now The Reef, and have never been disappointed. I always feel particularly partial to the one I'm reading at the present moment, but I think over all my favourite is still Ethan Frome.

In this one George D. is going to France to propose to his lady love, Anna L., a widow with a young daughter. Anna and George had a romance years ago before she was married and he has carried the torch all these years. Anna has shown a reserve in their meetings that has George worried, and when at the last minute he receives a telegram telling him not to come now, with no explanation other than an "unexpected obstacle", he begins to think she is not committed to their relationship, and he is hurt and angry. Enter damsel in distress, Sophy V. He offers assistance and is charmed by her quirkiness and her straightforward manner. One thing leads to another, they spend a few days together, then they eventually go their own ways, back to their own lives.

George and Anna resolve their difficulties and he visits her at the family's chateau, Givré, in France, where he is to meet Anna's little girl so they can spend some time getting to know each other. When the girl and her governess enter the room, George finds to his horror that the governess is none other than his lady in distress, Sophy V.  But this is only the first complication. Anna has a brother who is in love with Sophy, and he has no idea that she has a history with George. Let the lying begin.

On the surface it's a quick, enjoyable read, but there are deeper things to consider as we watch the relationships unravel and each character decide what they can, and can't, live with, and why. There are questions that need answers, questions about male and female roles, about social expectations, sexuality, truth, and the nature of love. Wharton doesn't provide them all, and the ones she does provide are not always comfortable. It is a romance, but it is surely not a fairy tale. These are flawed people whose ideals and desires clash, pushing and pulling them in every direction.

What truly fascinated me was the way the author used facial expression, tone of voice, and every nuance of body language to tell the story of what was really taking place around all the reserved verbal communicating. She has such skill at observing, and conveying to the reader, what makes the characters tick, and such insight into the endless human struggle with right and wrong, that it's mesmerizing. Sometimes I got tired of Anna's indecision, but these are not characters that let you walk away from them. You have to - and you want to - stick with them to the end, and even then, they may refuse to leave you.

Great writing, good story, and lots to ponder in this one. Highly recommended.

"John A.: The Man Who Made Us"

John A.: The Man Who Made Us by Richard Gwyn

Well, it’s not light reading, but it is worth the effort. I intended to get it, and its sequel “Nation Maker”, read last year for Canada’s 150th birthday, but life had other plans so I’m getting them done now.

It’s very readable, not always something you can say about history books, and though I did get bogged down in the politics now and then, most of it was quite interesting. It’s full of great anecdotes about the development of Canada though the 1800s, descriptions of how our cities got started and what life was like in those places at that time. There was so much I didn’t know about our relationship with the U.S. through those years and up to Confederation, and I found that eye-opening. It also showed me, up close, the personalities I’ve only known as the Fathers of Confederation. Now I see them as real people, with strengths and talents, and foibles and flaws, and the result is they are far more interesting to me. I’m looking forward to the sequel.

"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.