Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Sister by Poppy Adams

A debut book. This book is unique, very different from others I've read. I did enjoy it, and it did take me by surprise at the end of the book. To quote the first two lines of the book "It's ten to two in the afternoon and I've been waiting for my little sister, Vivi, since one-thirty. She's finally coming home, at sixty-six years old, after an absence of nearly fifty years." The story ostensibly takes place over 6 days, but is so full of flashbacks that it actually covers over 50 years.

Poppy Adams has put together a story told in the mind and perhaps faulty recollections of Virgina (Ginny), the older of two sisters. Ginny recalls the family as being happy and comfortable, but to her younger sister Vivien (Vivi) it appears the opposite. Ginny & Vivi are quite close until Vivi is serious hurt in a bad fall, which eventually is a catalyst for Vivi to move to London from the village where the family mansion was located. The book is a goldmine for anyone who has the least interest in lepidopterology (the study of moths & butterflies). Clive, the girls' father, is a renowned lepidologist and spends almost all his time involved in this, and trains Ginny to follow in his footsteps. It would appear the only constants in Ginny’s life, real or imagined, are time and moths. The whole story resembles a moth from cocoon to metamorphosis. Her attachment to time appears to me to be more symbolic.

There is something different about Ginny. She seems separated from life, or from living life. She has the ability to escape within herself to avoid learning about life or living in it. Her sister Vivi is the opposite. Ginny appears to be withdrawn, but it is much more than that. For a child witnessing it so young in her father’s lab, perhaps the innate cruelty of studying and experimenting with moths is one of the reasons Ginny does not really develop emotionally. But do we ever really know her? Does she know herself? Throughout most of the book I felt like I understood her “oddities”. The whole family seems to coddle Ginny, especially her mother Maude, who is her refuge. But eventually Maude is no longer able to handle the distancing of her husband and as Ginny gets more involved with her father’s work, she becomes more distant too. Maude is left virtually alone in the huge house as the others spend their time locked away in the lab or out hunting moths. This is a bad turning point for Maude and for Ginny. At this point the feel of the book also changes and the reader begins to realize that they quite possibly don't understand any of the characters. As Maude sinks deeper & deeper into her own nightmare world of depression and alcoholism, the whole family begins to fall apart. I began to think I didn't really know if anyone was as they seemed. Maude's questionable death only adds impetus to the disintegration of all their lives.

At the end of the book I am left with wondering just who was responsible for Maude's death. Everything turns around and I can only speculate. I think the important thing to remember in tying up the loose ends, is that the story is told from Ginny's mind. I think the symbolism is the only way to try to get at the truth. One of the few constants throughout the book is time, a brilliant, Hitchcock-type of background. I almost heard the ticking in the background! I couldn’t garner the answers from Ginny's mind, it functions in a radically different way. I am not even persuaded now in thinking back that she was involved with the research following Clive's demise at all. Even arthritic as she was, her mind tells her that she is a famous lepidopterist, so I can't see her letting the condition of the lab deteriorate to such a degree. She doesn't even seem to have known of its condition yet she was planning on showing her research to the entomologists. This would only make sense if she believed they would never be coming. I felt I was so deep into the mind of Ginny that I began to find it difficult to separate what is true and what is fantasy. Was she as brilliant as we have been led to believe? I don't know. At one point I thought she may have had the savant syndrome with autism, but her brilliance may have been in her own mind. And therein lies the paradox. Perhaps the author intended to leave questions unanswered but hinted at, to keep us trying to put our own slant on what has been happening all along.

The use of one clock in her room at the end of the book is again symbolic, she is in an orderly world and does not have to be connected to anyone, even Helen, who is there but not a threat A well-written book, but not at all easy to describe.

The House at Riverton by Kate Morton

My rating 4 stars, simply because I can't up it by 1/2.
I feel that the book was somewhat predictable, but well researched, and entertaining. A rare handling of the subject. My congratulations to Kate Morton for a uniquely handled novel that covers a lot more ground than would appear at a quick glance (not that anyone should consider a quick glance!)

This book is a gently-told narrative that brings the reader into the Edwardian period and takes us right through into the 1920s, with all its changes in society and mores. Living through the eyes of Grace, our narrator at the age of 98, the story comes alive. It is 1999 and her memories are awakened by Ursula, whose project is to tell the story of the House at Riverton to be featured in a film, reflecting on the historical significance of the family and household. Grace agrees to be interviewed about her recollections of life with the prestigious Ashbury family, against the wishes of her caretaker/companion Sylvia.

At the urging of her mother, Grace is hired on as a housemaid in this home to Lords and Ladies prior to WWI. The staff is fairly close-knit and she is treated well. There are three children related to the family visiting when she arrives and she forms a bond of sorts with them, in particular with Hannah, a rather independent young lady.

Grace tells the tale of the many unexpected but ceaseless changes (some very surprising) through her long life through the eyes of remembrance. But there is always a feeling of something not quite right as the story unfolds with an ongoing background of secrets untold and misunderstood. Our storyteller is one of the very few remaining witnesses to this history alive. She tells her story between brief interviews with Ursula, producer of the film, with whom she bonds and whose visits she begins to look forward to as time goes on. Between these interludes her story is told in word pictures of her mind, her memories become alive and she takes us with her. The two daughters of the original family are inextricably entwined with the life of Grace throughout. There is no difficulty in knowing when she is in the present and when she is in the past.

Everything is here, romance, missed opportunities, casualties of war (physically and psychologically) at a time when very little is known to help these victims, old-wealth class, rebellion against the place of women, and more, but there is something more human than we find in the usual Edwardian/Victorian era historical books, and always the hidden secrets are lurking about. It is a well-rounded book and an enjoyable read.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Stormy Weather by Paulette Jiles

Jiles has written an amazing book, passionate and descriptive. I have always heard of the "Dirty '30s", "Great Depression" and "Dustbowl" but through the lyrical prose and the voices of the characters of this book I now feel I have experienced it. Not just the hardships, but the survival instincts that come to the fore in times of disaster, as well as the humour and optimism that is the backbone of survival. This is one of the best books I have ever read. The descriptions of life and of environment are spellbinding. The characters are believable and well-defined. The story is set in 1930s Texas, for the most part telling the story of the hardy people who chased the oil from discovery to discovery, and particularly of Jeanine, the main character who grew from child to adult throughout the book. It is through her eyes we become witnesses. The endless search for work in the oil fields meant immediate shanty towns were set up whenever a new well was about to come in. The desperate and yet hopeful people continuously packing up and moving on when the flow slows down. Complete with a background of gambling, horse-racing rumbling alongside like an underground river, the book does not lose momentum through all this. Unfortunately, the very end for me tended to lose steam, possibly the author wanted to show the calm after the storm. At any rate, though complete, I felt it lacked the passion of the rest of the book. Nevertheless, I still highly recommend this book. You will not want to put it down.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Invisible Armies by Jon Evans

This is the first Jon Evans novel I have read. What an adventure in reading! This book is positively vibrating with intensity and action. If you want a book that you will not want to put down, this is the book for you. The action is constant with occasional breaks where you can catch your breath before again boarding that rollercoaster ride through the pages. I found that with all the switchbacks and turnabouts I was holding my breath. This book spun me around and topsy-turvy with every change in direction. At first I found the narrative bits a bit unsettling, somewhat like watching a TV program with voice-over narration for the blind, but I soon overcame that feeling with the dialogue and action.

The story begins with a somewhat typical girl, Danielle, doing a favour for a friend. She is soon literally fighting for her life and for humanity. Nobody is who they seem, nobody wants to trust anyone else. This book will amaze you in how far the world has actually come in technology, but don’t concern yourself with whether you will understand technobabble; it will usually be explained. I guess you could say technology is one of the heroes. Jon Evans has built a brilliant story which includes the best and worst in people, greed, awareness, and the survival instinct in all of us. It takes us to different countries and in dark places and communities which seem worlds away. I highly recommend this book, it is outstanding in its genre. If it weren’t for the few calm spots in the book, I would have had to read it cover-to-cover in one sitting. In fact, I finished it at 3:00 in the morning. You will not be unaffected.

Surviving the Odds by Jack Capell

Surviving the Odds:From D-Day to VE-Day With the 4th Division in Europe by Jack Capell
ISBN: 9781930053496
Author: Capell, Jack

Being a Canadian, most WWII books I have read have been Canadian also. That said, this book is extremely well-written, is told truthfully and remarkably straight-forward. This is the story of the undecorated heroes as told by one person who was there. These are the true heroes who fought in the front without questioning their duty and with no intention of giving up what they were fighting for. The book takes us from Capell’s early history and his journey into front line combat. Due to a mixup in his citizenship (he was born in Canada but lived almost his entire life in the U.S.) he was placed in the lowest ranks. What is interesting in the early part of the book is the number of mistakes made while still in training in the U.S. and England. This is unconscionable. This followed by the infamous error incurred during the landings on the beaches of Normandy, including the one that caused his division to be dropped in deep water in the wrong part of the beach, complete with the vehicle he was driving and managed through ingenuity to recover from the bottom. This is one of many instances throughout the book where soldiers' inventiveness saved their lives and others.

As has notably happened in both Canada and the United States, perhaps everywhere, after 40 to 50 years, many servicemen felt they were able to go back to that time in their recollections and hence we are able to benefit from the reliving of not only the hardships, horrors, chaos and deprivations suffered at these times, but also see the amazing strengths, faith, and indeed the humor which kept them going. So it goes in this book. It is strongly researched, but the memories come through as honest remembrances of actual acts, good or bad, no holds barred. That the author survived to tell his story is nothing short of a miracle, especially as a wireman, laying wire through enemy lines. In light of the “friendly fire” visited on his division so many times it’s remarkable that anyone survived the front lines. This story demonstrates humanity among inhumanity. The story is conversational in tone and very easy to read considering it’s content. I highly recommend this book for it’s integrity, it’s ability to bring the experiences to a new level of understanding, and it’s unfaltering faith. I firmly believe this book needed to be written, for what is the use of reading literature by the observers? This is literature by a full-time player.