The Enchanted April & Life of Pi

 The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Armin (audio)

I read this a few years ago and liked it, so when I found the audio version on sale I thought I'd indulge and maybe inject a little enchantment into this particular April. I think I enjoyed this version even more. The lovely British accent of the narrator, her clear voice and ability to change her tone just enough to distinguish each character, made this a treat to listen to. I'd forgotten just how amazing the setting was and hearing it described made it even more real. I've thoroughly enjoyed spending the last few days immersed in that beautiful place.

Here's my original review.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

* Spoiler Alert*

I hate to say it, but I didn't like this one at all. I found the first part tedious, thought it improved only a little once he was in the lifeboat, then found the last section, where he's in the hospital being interviewed, completely ridiculous. 

It's apparent even to me that I've entirely missed the point of the story. Oodles of people rave about this book - there are two pages at the beginning full of quotes saying how wonderful it is - but I had to force myself to stick with it. I'm still not sure why I did. I guess I was hoping I'd get to the part that impressed everyone else, but I never did and instead was happy to finally reach the last page. 

Down Under

 Down Under by Bill Bryson

Well I had a fun week travelling through Australia with the always entertaining Bill Bryson. It's never been a place I wanted to visit, mostly because it's ridiculously far away and too expensive a trip, but I so thoroughly enjoyed his experiences there that I was sorry to see the book come to an end. He's such an engaging story teller. His wry observations and keen interest in details kept me glued to the page throughout. I haven't read all his books yet, but I do know there aren't enough of them; there are so many places I want him to write about. Maybe he'll see this and take my list. No? 

Bryson's love for Australia is obvious, but he also admits it has more things that can kill you than any other country. Animals, plants, bugs and weather all demand the respect of the traveler who wants to enjoy this country and live to tell about it, and he tells us about an unlucky few who didn't. His own adventures, some of which were quite harrowing, had happier endings. The fact that he's willing to share his own mistakes and bad decisions makes it all very relatable, and those turn out to be some of the most memorable - and funniest - parts.  

What makes his books so entertaining is his ability to see the extraordinary in the ordinary, and the humour in everyday things. He can make an ordinary drive from one city to another seem like an event by pointing out the idiosyncrasies of the road, the traffic, and the countryside - be they comical or quizzical. From his endearing encounters with the charmingly cheerful people of Australia to his sometimes unflattering opinions of landmarks and noteable places, the book is full of information about a country I never expected to find so appealing. Some of his stories will stay with me for a long time, like the one about his magical tree-top walk above a forest of unimaginably tall trees. Sublime.

Another thing I particularly like is the just-right-amount of background information he gives about the places and people he encounters. The historical bits give some context and a better understanding of Australia and Austalians, who, apparently, really are as cool as they seem in all those travel ads.

Down Under is a invigorating romp through the busy cities, small towns and empty outback of Australia, told in the sometimes hilarious, occasionally poignant, always diverting style of one of the best travel writers I've ever read.   

The Dictionary of Lost Words

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams 

A very good story, if not quite what I was expecting. Had I paid more attention to the title I'd have realized it wasn't just about the writing of the dictionary - that it would be about those other words, the ones excluded from the dictionary, the lost words. That I should have anticipated, but the emphasis on the women's rights movement came as a complete surprise as it wasn't mentioned in any of the reviews I read.

It begins with Esme, the main character, as a little girl sitting beneath the table where her father and other men sorted through slips of paper containing words and quotes using them. When one of the paper slips falls, Esme catches it and puts it in her pocket, eventually hiding it in a trunk under her friend's bed. She continues to add words to the trunk as she grows up and eventually takes her own place at the sorting table. When she began collecting 'women's' words, I wasn't sure what her purpose was, but in the end I think I understood what she was doing and why. 

With historical fiction it's never clear enough to me where the line is drawn between history and the author's imagination, but here Pip Williams has blended the two into a thought-provoking story. The parts dealing with the Oxford English Dictionary held my interest more than those about Esme's supplemental dictionary - maybe she'd say that makes me part of the problem - but I was taken up by her personal story. I found her father to be a more compelling character than Esme herself though, and for me it unfortunately fell a little flat after he was written out. 

Some interesting history, an imaginative plot, and an eclectic cast of characters make this one a satisfying read.

A House By The Shore

 A House By the Shore by Alison Johnson

Alison and Andrew Johnson escaped the rat race by moving to the Hebridean Island of Harris, taking jobs as teachers in order to have free time for excursions and to take advantage of the house provided with those positions.

The weather took some getting used to, but the islanders were friendly and more than generous with the newcomers. Island life meant learning new skills like cutting peat, making lobster pots, and tanning sheepskins, and it would mean becoming acquainted with the local wildlife. Their sometimes surreal encounters with seals, seabirds, etc. are the subject of one particularly beautiful chapter. 

In their ramblings around the island they come across a rundown, uninhabited manse with renovation potential and they start saving money and gathering furniture for a future hotel/guest house.  A chapter on dealing with loans, grants and government regulations makes it clear how frustrating the whole process was. Extensive renovations were needed, most of which they did themselves and which are documented in a (somewhat tedious) chapter given to contruction details. After that chapter come more interesting stories: about their sometimes quirky guests, their workers, adventures in their under-equipped kitchen, and their dog, Monster. The dog stories were great, but I wondered why she didn't mention being pregnant or giving birth to a daughter. The dog got a whole chapter! To give credit where it's due, the daughter does get mentioned after she's been around for a few years. 

Their eclectic assortment of guests included the Prince of Wales; a trio of old soldiers they called Majors Baboon, Chimp, and Gentleman; a bagpiper; and a pair of less than honest "mediamen" - all stories with some comical moments. But what I will remember most about this book are the beautiful island of Harris itself and the author's stellar writing. Even in the sections I didn't particularly enjoy, there were sentences I'd stop to re-read just to absorb their perfect wording again. 

I'm a fan of the "we-left-our-old-lives-to-travel-to-a-new-country-and-make-a-home-there" genre, especially when it's this interesting, entertaining, and well written.

What Maisie Knew

 What Maisie Knew by Henry James

When I read Henry James I am either delighted with his writing or flat out irritated with it and him. The Wings of the Dove for example was an exhillarating reading experience, while What Maisie Knew was both great and greatly irritating. I know that the mood I bring to a book can influence how I react to it, but seriously, what does "His allusion to this meal gave her, in the shaded sprinkled coolness, the scene, as she vaguely felt, of a sort of ordered mirrored license, the haunt of those - the irregular, like herself - who went to bed or rose too late, something to think over while she watched the white-aproned waiter perform as nimbly with plates and saucers as a certain conjurer her friend had in London taken her to a music-hall to see." even mean? 

I usually enjoy figuring out his convoluted word mazes but for some reason I found myself grumbling my way through this one. Maybe I was in too much of a hurry to appreciate his tendency to use 74 words where 12 might do, but whatever the reason, I think I'll wait awhile before I tackle another one. He's been one of my favourite authors for a long time and I don't want to mess that up. 

As for the story, Maisie is the little girl through whose eyes it is seen. Her mother and father, narcissistic jerks who can't stand each other, don't have the time or the inclination to look after her. They split up and re-marry, then those new relationships fall apart and the new husband and new wife get together, creating a very complicated situation indeed. 

Poor little Maisie gets shuffled back and forth among all these adults and has to listen to each of them complaining about the others, even being required to pass on insults when she leaves one home for the next. The question of who will raise her isn't answered till the very end and when it did come it didn't make a lot of sense. Yes, it was a different time and place, but surely there must have been some protections in place for children. Could parents simply decide not to raise their child and give her away to anyone who was willing to take her? And I can't believe any adult would let a child make the final decision about guardianship based on that child's ultimatum, no matter how well-meant the ultimatum was.

Despite being rejected by her parents, Sadie maintains her good attitude through all the changes, and it's a good thing because she's the only character who's likeable at all. Her step-father, Charles, has potential but in the end he turns out to be as flaky as the rest of them. There aren't many people in this story to admire. 

Having said all that, I am glad I read it. Henry James' dizzying wordiness may annoy me now and again, but most of the time I'm simply in awe of his brilliant use of the English language, the beautiful structure of his sentences, and his insight into the human psyche. 

I'll never give up on you, Henry.