Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Guest Post- Ann Weir's First 4 Reviews for The 5th Canadian Book Challenge

The Origin of Species – by Nino Ricci

Nino Ricci’s The Origin of Species tells the story of Alex, a graduate student living in Montreal in the 1980’s, and the diverse set of characters he interacts with on a day-to-day basis. Alex is dissatisfied and distant in most aspects of his life, unable to focus on his work, avoiding his therapist and being generally uncomfortable in his friendships and relationships. He lives largely absorbed by his past, notably by his experiences with his Swedish lover Ingrid and his past live-in girlfriend Liz. A disturbing incident in the Galapagos Islands, which is described in the second half of the book, continues to haunt him.

Nino Ricci’s writing has a lyrical quality and The Origin of Species is a beautifully written book. The diversity and character of the city of Montreal are nicely described, making me want to join Alex on one of his walks around the city. The story is populated by a diverse set of interesting characters, the inspiring Esther, the courageous Maria, Alex’s colleague Jiri who intrudes on Alex’s life and Desmond, Alex’s irksome Galapagos travel companion.

However, the personalities of Ingrid and Liz are ill defined and hard to relate to. It is also difficult to like Alex, or to understand what others see in him. When his experiences in the Galapagos Islands are revealed, the cause of his current problems becomes clearer. After understanding this part of Alex’s life, the story seemed to hang together a bit better for me. But despite being touching and thought provoking, the lack of a sympathetic main character made The Origin of Species a challenging and long read.

Hannah Waters and the Daughter of Johann Sebastian Bach – by Barbara Nickel

Barbara Nickel has written a book for all ages with Hannah Waters and the Daughter of Johann Sebastian Bach. The story is set equally in modern day Saskatchewan, where 12-year-old Hannah Waters has moved with her father after the tragic death of her mother, a professional violinist, and in Cohen, Germany in the 1720’s, the home of Catharina Dorthea Bach, aged 11, the only daughter of Johann Sebastian Bach. The two girls “meet” while experiencing stressful times in their young lives and imagine they see and hear each other while listening to or performing music.

Two common threads connect the girls lives, the first being their relationships with their parents. The struggle each girl experiences with her respective fathers is woven nicely throughout the story. While Catharina struggles largely in isolation, Nickel provides Hannah with other adult figures to rely on, with the benefit of adding some interesting characters to the book. The girls also share a love of Bach’s “Concerto for Two violins in D Minor”, also known as the Bach Double, one of Bach’s most famous and respected works. Nickel plays with the timing of when Bach composed the piece to fit the storyline. Both girls fall in love with the music, for Catharina as Bach composes it and for Hannah as she studies it. The time-stretched friendship is an unusual concept and in this case, it feels real, balanced nicely between imagination and reality.
Although written as a pre-teen story (ages 11+), I would also recommend this book for adults as it is a thoroughly enjoyable and uplifting read.

River of the Brokenhearted – by David Adams Richards

David Adams Richards’ River of the Brokenhearted is a family saga of three generations of the King family which is set along the banks of the Miramichi River in New Brunswick. After several setbacks in England, George King immigrates to New Brunswick in the 1920’s and marries the much younger Janie McLeary, a New Brunswick native of Irish descent. George and Janie are both talented musicians and after several failed attempts at business, George decides to buy a movie projector and open a theatre. Their success puts George and Janie at odds with Joey Elias, a successful local businessman. Joey has a relationship with the Druken family, also recent immigrants who coincidentally have a long standing feud with the King family carried over from England. The book covers the relationship between the Kings, the Drukens and Joey Elias over the next 75 years.

Having read a lot of Richards’ novels before, the themes of envy, greed and pettiness are familiar, as are the inclusion of some very sad and some very brave moments. However, I found his writing style different in this story, which is told from the viewpoint of Janie and George’s grandson Wendell. It reads very much like a story someone is telling their children or grandchildren about their family’s history. I felt a great deal of warmth and sympathy for Miles King, Wendell’s father, as he weathers the cruelty Rebecca Druken, one of the few truly evil characters that Richards has created. I found Miles’ respect and love for his wife and children so touching, rounding out his fascinating character. If you are a Richards fan, I think you will really enjoy this book.

The Flying Troutmans – by Miriam Toews

The Flying Troutmans is the story of a struggling family based in Manitoba who head out on an unusual road trip south of the border. Hattie Troutman returns home from Paris after receiving a desperate call from her 11 year-old niece Thebes. Hattie’s chronically mentally ill sister Min is in serious trouble and Thebes turns to Hattie, needing help for herself, her mother and her 15 year-old brother Logan. After successfully delivering Min to the psychiatric ward, Hattie, who is feeling overwhelmed at home with the two kids, decides to take them on a search for their estranged father Cherkis. With little to go on, Hattie packs up the kids and a van and heads south.

The story mainly focuses on Hattie’s growing relationship with Thebes and Logan and on their brother/sister relationship. The dialogue in this book is so well written, feeling absolutely natural and being quite funny at times despite the underlying sadness of the story. Thebes and Logan are great characters: quirky, funny, mature and talented. The author uses a series of flashbacks to shed light on Hattie’s relationship with Min and their parents as well as on Min’s experiences as a mother. The memories of Min with her children were the most touching, helping me to understand the source of their confidence and optimism. One of my favourite conversations Hattie has with Logan occurs while he is playing basketball:
“What do you think about when you shoot?”

“Oh really? You just concentrate entirely on shooting?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“Do you worry that the ball won’t go in?”
“No, I always believe that it will. Every time.”

“Seriously? Even when you’ve missed a bunch of shots?”
“Yeah, I think it’s gonna go in every time.”
“And then, so, when it doesn’t go in do you feel all disillusioned?”

“No, not at all, ‘cause I’m always sure the next one will go in.”

I found it took a few chapters to warm up to this book, as Hattie’s situation is very difficult at first. But with a bit of a twist at the end, I felt genuinely happy and optimistic for Hattie, Min, Logan and Thebes.

1 comment:

Perogyo said...

Those all look like amazing reads! I'd especially like to read the second one, the time-stretched friendship is intriguing.