Monday, December 17, 2012
From the book cover:
A car tumbles through darkness down a snowy ravine.
A woman without a name walks out of a dust storm in sub-Saharan Africa.
And in the seething heat of Lagos City, a criminal cartel scours the Internet looking for victims.
Lives intersect. Worlds collide. And it all begins with a single email: "Dear Sir, I am the daughter of a Nigerian diplomat, and I need your help..."
When Laura Curtis, a lonely editor in a cold northern city, discovers that her father has died because of one such swindle, she sets out to track down - and corner - her father's killer. It is a dangerous game she is playing, however, and the stakes are higher than she can ever imagine.
Woven into Laura's journey is a mysterious woman from the African Sahel with scars etched into her skin and a young man who finds himself caught up in a web of violence and deceit.
And running through it, a dying father's final words. "You, I love."
I totally see why this novel won the Giller Prize. It deals with a topic that we hear about more and more here in North America - those pesky phishing scams that often target senior citizens. The title '419' comes from the section of the Nigerian criminal code that deals with Internet scams and the obtaining of money by deceit or other illegal means.
Will Ferguson's writing style is easy. 419 isn't one of those books you can't put down. It's the type of book that you're happy to pace yourself with and get to the end when time allows. A few online critics have bashed 419 for having superficial and meaningless one-liners. They compare 419 to Will Ferguson's other novels, the memoirs Beyond Belfast, Hitching Rides with Buddha and Canadian Pie about his travels in Ireland, Japan and from Yukon to PEI, respectively, and his satirical novels Happiness™ and Spanish Fly. I've never read any of his works before so I didn't have anything to compare 419, and thus found it to be a satisfying read.
My only real complaint would have to be the ending. I didn't get the answers I was seeking, the ones that compelled me to flip through this 393-page novel. The reader is given back stories for all but one of the main characters in the novel. Oddly enough, the characters current circumstances drives much of the plot, yet the reader does not get even a glimpse of how she came to be in her current situation.
At the end of the day, 419 is still a damn good book.
Tuesday, December 11, 2012
From the book cover:
I came into the world during the Tet Offensive, in the early days of the Year of the Monkey, when the long chains of firecrackers draped in front of houses exploded polyphonically along with the sound of machine guns.
I first saw the light of day of Saigon, where firecrackers, fragmented into a thousands shreds, coloured in ground red like the petals of cherry blossoms or like the blood of the two million soldiers deployed and scattered throughout the villages and cities of a Vietnam that had been ripped in two.
I was born in the shadow of skies adorned with fireworks, decorated with garlands of light, shot through with rockets and missiles. The purpose of my birth was to replace lives that had been lost. My life's duty was to prolong that of my mother.
Based on the author's childhood and immigration to Montreal in the mid-1970s, Ru reads like a series of poems. It can be a bit hard to follow as the plot jumps back and forth in time. Nonetheless, it is an amazing narrative of the experience of Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s.
The book's narrator and protagonist, Nguyen An Tinh, shares her experiences as a member of a wealthy South Vietnamese family, to her family's flight amidst the danger and uncertainty of the Vietnamese war. The family, along with many of their relatives eventually settle in Quebec. Nguyen's story is in places over-the-top sad. At times I found myself questioning the truth in all of it. On the first page, she claims that she was born to replace the lives lost during the Tet offensive and to prolong her mother's life. In all of the poems that make up the novel, not one illustrated this summary. In fact, her mother seems to be a strong willed woman who was able to adapt quickly to the family's changing circumstances, and was thus able to coach her children to make the most of a new life.
Then there are the sections where she shares the experiences of sex workers, victims of sexual interference and the heritage of the children of Vietnamese women and American soldiers. Having all of these other stories mixed into Nguyen's story gave the novel of feeling of desperation. Like someone who's been without a voice for too many years and all of a sudden has a voice and feels compelled to spew everything least their audience should disappear.
Tuesday, December 4, 2012
The burden of one sister's love for her younger sister - whom she's sworn to protect - has a dramatic effect on both their lives.
Laura Franklin was a plain girl yearning for her parents' love and attention. When her older brother, Charles, dies of infant paralysis, she is certain that her parents will have no choice but to love her since she's all they got. When they announce that they are going to have another child, she prays that it will be a stupid girl that they won't pay much attention to. Laura gets her wish when her little sister, Shirley, is born. Unfortunately for Laura, Shirley has Charles' eyes which cause their parents to love her that much more. Laura begins to pray that Shirley will be sent to heaven. One night while their parents are away, the house catches fire and Laura makes a split decision to risks her own life to save Shirley. From then on, she vows to love and protect Shirley.
As they grow up, Laura sacrifices her own future in order to make sure that Shirley is happy and safe. Shirley loves her sister in return but feels a tremendous weight on her shoulder from carrying around the expectations that come with being loved.
Laura's love for Shirley goes so far, she ends up murdering her sister's husband to enable her sister to marry the man she thinks she should have married in the first place.
The Burden is my least favourite Mary Westmacott novel so far. I've read four of her six novels so I think I know what I'm talking about.
Monday, November 26, 2012
The stories in this dazzling new collection look at what happens when people's personal coping skills go awry. These are people who discover their anchor-chain has broken: characters safe in the world of self-deception or even self-delusion, forced to face the fact that their main line of defense has become their greatest weakness.
From the caretaker of a prairie amusement park to the lone occupant of a collapsing Newfoundland town, from the a traveling sports-drink marketer with a pressing need to get off the road to an elevator inspector who finds himself losing his marriage, these are people whose lives are spinning wildly out of control as they try to navigate their way through their rapidly changing worlds.
The twelve short stories in this collection have more in common than the theme of coping skills gone awry. They all feature a slice of Canadian life. Most of the stories are set in Atlantic Canada - a region that seems to inspire a lot of Canadian literature.
The thing I admire most about this collection is Russell Wangersky's writing style and his ability to set the scene quickly while giving the reader enough information to become emotionally involved in each of the short stories. Most of the stories are 20 pages or less, yet almost every single story came to a gut-wrenching climax that led me to ask 'How would I cope in a similar situation?'
At the end of the day, I think being able to throw ourselves into someone's else story is why most of us read. Thus, I'm adding Russell Wangersky's Whirl Away on my 5ers list.
Monday, November 19, 2012
Bereft of the three people she has held most dear, Cecilia must decide if she has the strength to come to terms with the past.
I think what I like most about Agatha Christie's works as Mary Westmacott is the character development. In her murder mysteries, everything moves so fast there isn't much opportunity to really get to know and understand the characters. Unfinished Portrait has a lot of similarities with Giant's Bread.
Unfinished Portrait is Celia's life story. However, the narrator who is an injured painter trying a new medium (writing stories), points out in the prologue that it's such a common story that it could be any one's story.
The story opens with Celia at a seaside resort getting ready to commit suicide.
Celia had a happy childhood. She lived on a beautiful country estate and was loved and adored by her mother, father and grandmother and teased by her older brother. Her father has a heart attack and dies when she's eleven years old, and from then on she and her mother live very modestly. At this point, her brother, who is several years older than her, has already left home to join the army.
Celia grows up and marries Dermot despite her mother's fears that he can't be trusted and her grandmother's general warnings about the fickleness of men. Celia and Dermot are happy for 11 years. During that time, Celia gives birth to their daughter, Judy and Dermot gets a good job that affords them a life of luxury. When Celia's mother dies, things quickly spiral out of control, and she finds herself without all the people who matter the most to her.
As I was reading this novel, I kept thinking about how Celia is a version of Nell, and Dermot a version of Vernon from Giant's Bread. It's like they couldn't be together in that story, so the author tries them out under different circumstance in this novel. Unfortunately, the results are just as disastrous.
Unfinished Portrait really made me think about the different types of people that make the world go around.
Sunday, November 11, 2012
No one knows the heart and mind of a soldier. Every day they must face scenarios and life choices that most of us will never even imagine. When Rory Nichols joins the army, this hard lesson hits hard and fast. After 911, he is deployed to Iraq. He and his wife, Emily, face sacrifice and strife which they fear their young marriage may not survive. Pushed to his limits, Rory begins to ask questions. Then one day, he receives a fateful phone call relaying the most wicked of betrayals. He rushes home to face an enemy he had not predicted. In this penultimate moment he will right a wrong and stand for what he believes in at all costs; making a statement to his country, to his family, and to all victims of this seething crime. It is a story of life, love, and rising above the acts of war and abuse.
Behind all of the cheese, this is a mediocre coming-of-age novel. The main character, Rory, is desperately trying to discover his true self by escaping from his small hometown, while his best friend is trying to break away from family expectations and give the system the finger.
The romantic and familial relationships are cliched and typical of the type of stuff found in self-published novels.
Emily is a sweet, pure, beautiful blond that embodies the American girl next door myth. Her love for Rory is loyal and unwavering, even in the toughest of times. Rory respects his parents, even though they don't see eye-to-eye on many things, including Rory's decision to seek out a career as a police officer, thus moving away from the family's ranch. Rory and his brother Rodney love wrestling but truly love and respect each other. Minutes after receiving a black eye from his brother as he's about to leave for a date, an eighteen-year-old Rory is thinking about how much he really loves his brother. It just doesn't ring true. And there are many other examples where the characters' emotions lack depth.
Although Rory is the story's main narrator, Emily, Rory's best friend J.T., his girlfriend Abby, and Rory's daughter, Callie, all take turns narrating at various plot crossroads. A writer of a higher calibre would have used these different characters to add emotional depth but in this case, it's basically a regurgitation of Rory's thoughts. The only slight exceptions are J.T. and Abby.
The 'wicked betrayal' eluded to on the book cover does not occur until the last quarter of the book and it comes across as being one last ditch effort to add a little more drama and to tug at the heart strings. The final pages are so unreal, this book might as well be classified as fantasy.
Tuesday, November 6, 2012
The legend begins...
Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the kingdom of Phthia to be raised in the shadow of King Peleus and his golden son, Achilles. "The best of all the Greeks" - strong, beautiful, and the child of a goddess - Achilles is everything the shamed Patroclus is not. Yet despite their differences, the boys become steadfast companions. Their bond deepens as they grow into young men and become skilled in the arts of war and medicine - much to the displeasure and the fury of Achilles' mother, Thetis, a cruel sea goddess with a hatred for mortals.
When word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, the men of Greece , bound by blood and oath, must lay siege to Troy in her name. Seduced by the promise of a glorious destiny, Achilles joins their cause, and torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus follows. Little do they know that the Fates will test them both as never before and demand a terrible sacrifice.
Madeline Miller's Song of Achilles is the winner of the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction. Achilles is Ms. Miller first novel. It is based on Homer's Illiad poem.
I really enjoyed reading this novel. It definitely a good book. It one of the stories that sparked my interest and sent me on to the world wide web to further investigate and get the back story on some of the people/gods mentioned.
I'm a bit surprised that Song of Achilles won the Orange Prize. It seems like cheating, taking the plot of someone else's poem and developing it into a novel. Yes, Ms. Miller did bring the characters to life. Yes, her writing style did make this novel a pleasure to read, but still it doesn't seem fair to the other authors who actually developed their own plots.
Achilles is a historical fiction, one could argue that all historical fictions steal their plots from a story already written. What do you think? Am I overreacting?
I'm going to hold off on rating this book until I've read Homer's poem.