Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Review of Three Day Road

Coming off of a disappointing read, I decided to go for Three Day Road, a book that I'd only heard good things about. And it was great. I tried to get my book club to read it, but they were not into "any war books that are depressing." So that definitely ruled this one out. The thing is, I actually expected it to be more dark and depressing than it was. Yes, when your subject matter is World War I and oppressed First Nations people during the first half of the last century, it's not going to be a lighthearted read. But the strength and spirit of the characters really overpowered the dark stuff in a good way so that the book felt really balanced in its depiction of events.

Once again, Boyden uses male and female voices as his narrators throughout the book in alternating chapters. Niska is one of the last Cree Indians in northern Ontario who has not given up the traditional way of living off the land in a nomadic lifestyle. She raises her nephew, Xavier, after rescuing him from residential school when he was five years old (her sister, Xavier's mother, was lost to alcoholism). Niska teaches Xavier the traditional ways of hunting and surviving in the bush, along with her gifts for reading bones and interpreting dreams. Xavier's best friend from residential school is Elijah. Elijah is outgoing and gregarious, with a gift for the English language and an ability to mimic accents. Elijah spends his summers with Niska and Xavier, and they teach him how to hunt and shoot and live in the bush as well. It is Elijah who decides that he and Xavier need to enlist and fight in the war, and they journey and fight in Belgium together for three torturous years.

The book begins with Xavier's return to Ontario after the war, missing a leg and trapped by a morphine addiction. Niska is there to greet him, and both of their stories unfold on the three day canoe paddle back home. We learn of Niska's youth and alienation from other Cree once her father was jailed and killed by Canadians. We learn of her fits of epilepsy and resulting visions that lead her to her nephew so that she can take him away from the residential school. We learn of Xavier's friendship with Elijah, their feats on the battlefield as expert snipers, and why Xavier returns from war and Elijah does not.

Boyden once again did a masterful job of bringing the reader into small-town northern Ontario. The best way to describe his writing is that it is graceful. He is able to bring voices and people to the surface without being cliched or forced, and create incredibly clear images of completely different geographies. The reader is transported from the remote wilderness of northern Ontario in the dead of winter to the depraved and pock-marked mud fields of no-man's-land in the Somme.

Someone told me that Three Day Road was the first book in a trilogy. I hope that they were right, because it means I have one more wonderful story to look forward to.


Review of Secret Daughter

Secret Daughter was not a good start to 2011. I knew within the first couple of chapters that I was not going to like this book, but because I have such a hard time putting books down, I didn't.

Secret Daughter is about two families, one in India and the other in San Francisco. Kavita is from an impoverished town in the countryside of India and has given her daughter Usha up for adoption to prevent her from being killed at birth because of her gender (this is her second baby, her first, also a girl, was taken away by her brother-in-law, never to be seen again). She makes the trip to Mumbai the day after Usha's birth to save her by putting her up for adoption. She is adopted by Somer and Krishnan, a couple in California who cannot have children, and rename her Asha. (BTW, what the hell kind of name is Somer? That was also extremely irritating for me). But I digress... The plot is pretty predictable from here. Kavita goes on to have a son, who grows up to be a degenerate drug dealer, and she always wonders what happened to Usha. Asha grows up to resent her parents, fantasizing about her birth parents, and goes to India when she is in college to try and find them.

What bothered me about Secret Daughter was not the storyline (although I did not find it to be all that original), but Shilpi Somaya Gowda's writing - it was not very good. I found myself extremely annoyed by her writing style to the point that I had to stop and ask myself why it was bothering me so much. And what I realized is that Gowda writes how I write, which is fine. But it's not great. Or what I consider good enough to publish a novel, let alone the #1 bestseller in Canada. If I hadn't just read Through Black Spruce, I would have gone on some rant about how Canada's standards for good writing are not as high as they should be, blah blah blah. But Boyden did a masterful job, and Canadians recognized as much. So what's the deal? Why has Secret Daughter been such a success? My guess is that it appeals to the Oprah-watching 30 to 60 year-old demographic who just want an easy read with a plot that is simple to follow and somewhat compelling. And that's what this book was.


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

2011 Books

I'm six reviews behind for my 2010 books, but I'm going to try and catch up and stay current in 2011. 'Try' is the key word.

1. Secret Daughter - Shilpi Somaya Gowda
2. Three Day Road - Joseph Boyden
3. Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon - Jorge Amado
4. The Ten-Year Nap - Meg Wolitzer
5. The Tourist - Olen Steinhauer
6. Bow Grip - Ivan Coyote
7. The Hare With Amber Eyes - Edmund De Waal
8. Hooked: Pirates, Poaching and the Perfect Fish - G. Bruce Knecht
9. The Help - Kathryn Stockett

10. The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins
11. Catching Fire - Suzanne Collins
12. Mockingjay - Suzanne Collins

13. In Arabian Nights - Tahir Shah
14. Caleb's Crossing - Geraldine Brooks
15. Lamb - Christopher Moore
16. To End All Wars - Adam Hochschild
17. The Tenderness of Wolves - Stef Penney
18. The Caliph's House - Tahir Shah
19. The Memory Palace - Mira Bartok
20. Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War

2010 Write Off (I mean Wrap Up)

Well folks, I'm writing this in February of 2011, so that should say it all! 2010 was a big year for me in terms of pregnancy and baby, and therefore not so much in terms of books and blogging. However, I did manage to review all 15 books that I read (I'm not counting the dozen or so pregnancy and baby books that were thrown into my mix). And looking back, it was a pretty good year for me in terms of quality and enjoyment. I manage to have read at least one book a month since Tessa arrived, which I am proud of. I've never been into the whole 50 books thing, but I do hope that I can start to read a bit more now that she's sleeping better (for now), and napping more consistently (for now).