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A Different Sun – by Elaine Neil Orr

September 10, 2013

a-different-sun-novel-of-africa-elaine-neil-orr-133x200

It is the mid-19th century and Emma Davis, daughter of a prosperous Georgian slave owner, grows up with a deep sense of identity and of calling to the mission field. She marries Henry Bowman, a missionary with great passion and many demons haunting him from his sinful past, and they move to his post among the Yoruba people in Africa where Emma is challenged beyond her expectations – as much by her husband’s fervor as anything else.

I really enjoyed this novel; I was very pleasantly surprised at how much. The author has a distinctive style that makes it a novel of scenes, of moments, though I’m sure her style is not for everyone. Faith plays a major role, since Emma and Henry are Baptist missionaries after all, but each of them at times doubt, berate themselves for lack of faith, and still draw on their faith to sustain them. The portrayal of doubt and struggle is excellent. Here’s a little bit of a sample:

“She dozed, and when she woke a sheet of fear swept her back. Her misery came back fourfold. She stood again, moving heavily in the dark toward the rocking chair. ‘Criminal,’ she spewed in a loud whisper at herself, ‘a base sinner.’ She was sundered to think on the baby and herself full of tortured longing. What a poor witness she was, a horror, and she had thought herself worthy, special, an instrument of God. She laughed in self-loathing. She almost wished Henry dead. She would fling herself on Jacob. Oh! She had thought herself a white bird, had seen herself in Africa gloved and fine, living clean and beautiful. Now look at the country of her mind.” (293)

Emma herself is a wonderful character – I really liked her and could identify with her often but I’m sure some readers will find her over-earnest and naive. For instance, as a girl she writes in her journal and then when she’s a bit older, getting a sense of her calling: “she went regularly to her bureau drawer to read her girlhood thoughts. ‘I’m studying myself,’ she said one night when it dawned on her what she was doing.” (30)

If you enjoyed the themes and subject matter of The Poisonwood Bible, you might be interested in this novel. Also a good pick for book clubs.

The blind man’s garden – by Nadeem Aslam

August 21, 2013

the-blind-mans-gardenSet in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the months after September 11, 2001, this novel follows the members of one extended family and how their lives are impacted by war, loss, grief, and love. There is a lot of beauty in this novel, vivid and colourful details of ordinary things, characters expressing intense emotions – to contrast with the ugliness of war and terrorism. It’s lovely to read. My only complaint is that the plot relies a bit too much on coincidence. If you enjoy Khaled Hosseini’s books (The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns), you might enjoy this book.

And the mountains echoed – by Khaled Hosseini

July 31, 2013

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I finished And the Mountains Echoed a while ago and haven’t been too compelled to blog about it. I thought it was an okay read, but not nearly as good as Hosseini’s previous two books, The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns. 

This novel is about family relationships and is set in Afghanistan, the US, and Europe, as people from the family or connected to the family move away from or return to Afghanistan. The novel is almost like a book of short stories with intersecting characters; the narrative that holds them together is not nearly so strong as that in his other books. Sometimes it was even hard to follow, since the chapters are narrated by several different people and the reader is left to guess their identity.

I enjoyed the reading of it but unfortunately Hosseini’s latest novel is rather forgettable.

The house at the end of Hope Street – by Menna van Praag

July 31, 2013

hope street

Harry Potter-style chick lit? That’s one way of describing The house at the end of Hope Street. The world of magic is not quite so prominent in this book, but there were many little features that put me in mind of the world J.K. Rowling created.

Alba Ashley has just suffered the worst event in her (short, sheltered) life so far. At the end of her rope, she stumbles upon an old house she never noticed before and finds herself welcomed in by Peggy, the 82-year-old landlady. As it turns out, the house has been a place of shelter for over 200 years for women who have run out of hope and needed a place where they can get back on their feet. Peggy tells Alba that, like all other guests, she’s welcome to stay for 99 nights, long enough for her to turn her life around but short enough so that she can’t put it off forever. And if she takes care of the house, the house will take care of her. Soon she meets the other residents: Carmen, a victim of domestic abuse, and Greer, a struggling actor. She befriends Stella, a ghost, and eventually begins chatting with some of the other women who’ve stayed there in the past, through their photographs – women like Daphne du Maurier, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Florence Nightengale, and Emmeline Pankhurst. Alba’s journey takes a few more twists and turns before she rediscovers herself.

This novel makes a good summer read; it’s whimsical, there’s just enough mystery to keep you hooked, and it’s pretty light. Reading and writing play a big role in Alba’s life so there are plenty of literary references, but the novel itself is not overly literary. I thought the book was okay, as far as chick-lit goes. Not to be compared with Bridget Jones’ Diary but definitely not the worst I’ve read either. Somewhere in the middle – a decent escape.

The detour – by Gerbrand Bakker

July 25, 2013

detour (1)A Dutch woman rents a farm in rural Wales and sets about making the house and grounds more homey. After a few weeks, a young man hiking the nearby footpath stops in and stays for a night, but his visit turns into weeks. A creepy neighbour pops in from time to time. As the novel progresses, we learn something about why the woman, a researcher studying Emily Dickinson, fled her husband and job, what the husband is doing about it, and what happened to the old woman who owned the farm, though details remain ambiguous. What is clear is that the woman is in turmoil, and she’s seeking something – comfort? relief? escape? – in her solitude and isolation.

This is a very quiet and atmospheric novel in which little action occurs, yet I couldn’t put it down until I finished it and the story – moody, mysterious, disturbing in a way – still lingers in my mind. It’s a page turner, but not in the way we normally think of this phrase. This isn’t a novel everyone would enjoy, but I liked it. The author won the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for his first novel, The Twin, and both were translated from the Dutch by David Colmer.

The sunshine when she’s gone – Thea Goodman

July 6, 2013

imagesVeronica and John are new parents, but the privileged 30-something New Yorkers are having a hard time adjusting to the arrival of baby Clara. Both are bewildered, sleep deprived, and growing  irritated with each other. One morning John decides to let Veronica sleep in and he takes Clara out – and ends up jetting off to Barbados for the weekend for some warmth and relaxation (with the baby). Veronica, who doesn’t know the truth of his whereabouts, guiltily enjoys a weekend alone in the city with friends and an old lover.  The characters are believable in their struggles, even if they come off as spoiled and a bit naïve when it comes to parenting. But perhaps Goodman wanted to make a point about the obsessions of modern parenting. For example, would Clara be that much worse off without the organic goat’s milk infused with a special blend of herbs?  Anyway, this story about becoming a parent and a marriage in crisis has a certain pull – it’s a bit melancholic, a bit funny, and even if you don’t like Veronica and John, you want to know whether they manage to work things out.

Sleeping Funny – Miranda Hill

July 3, 2013

13536358I found this book of short stories quite enjoyable. Short stories can go either way, I find. Sometimes they feel or sound too much the same, or are too depressing, too serious, or too . . . something. Other times, they are delightful, like these. Some of the stories are surprising, some are sad, and a couple of them I found didn’t do much for me.  Some of my favourites are:

The Variance: successful, professional women in a beautiful, affluent neighbourhood are unsettled by a new neighbour that doesn’t conform to their standards and who wants to erect a large art studio in her backyard.

6:19: A civil servant finds himself on the same commuter train every day, despite his efforts to get on a later train that doesn’t make a certain stop that wastes a few minutes of his time each day.

Sleeping funny: Clea returns to her home with her young daughter Minnie to care for her father in his dying days, and runs into a former classmate; their situations in life have reversed, in a way. Clea is trying to figure out how to deal with her father’s house of hoarded stuff and how to keep a fish alive for Minnie.

As with many short stories, these are about so much more than neighbours, commuters, and dead fish. Sometimes, I think short stories are more like poetry than fiction, and that’s what can make them so powerful. The stories in Sleeping Funny are diverse in terms of historical setting and characters, and I found most of them fascinating, even when it is just everyday stuff that happens – since after all, sometimes it is the ordinary things that change our lives. Miranda Hill’s writing is wonderful, and I recommend this collection of short stories.