Thursday, May 18, 2017

Margaret Laurence's Diviners

The Diviners / Margaret Laurence
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, c1974.
382 p.

I put off reading this book for years, thinking it was going to be a dull, good-for-you classic. I'm not sure why, as I absolutely loved Laurence's novel The Stone Angel when I read it years ago. In any case, I couldn't have been more wrong about this one.

This a story that feels fresh and modern in the way that it plays with structure and form. It asks questions concerning a woman's independence and her role as wife, mother, person. I found Laurence's method of telling the story through sections separated out as memories, inside memories, writings and so forth really fascinating. The story shifts in time like a person talking, retelling their life in back and forth fragments. Yet it's completely coherent and builds narrative tension.

Morag Gunn is from the small town of Manawaka; orphaned at age four, she is raised by the town refuse collector and his wife. Her main goal is to get out of town as soon as possible. She succeeds in leaving to go to university, and through a circuitous route, including a relatively brief marriage, ends up with one daughter and a house in the Ontario countryside, from whence she tells her story.

And she tells it, full of sensory details and clever writing, as suits the writer Morag has become. She compares moments from all over her life and reflects on her prickly nature, including being totally honest about what she's done right and wrong over the years. She's a strong, complex, completely real character with a thoroughly active internal life.

This is a Canadian classic that has the whiff of the 70s about it, in its focus on a woman's life and her struggle for individuation, and in the elements of identity, both personal and national, that arise again and again. But it's also modern and relevant and just really, really interesting to read now.

Highly recommend this one.

Friday, May 12, 2017

The Weekend Effect

The Weekend Effect: The Life Changing Benefits of Taking Time Off and Challenging the Cult of Overwork / Katrina Onstad
Toronto: HarperCollins, c2017.
304 p.

Now this is the opposite of the last book I read, How to Be a Bawse. Instead of recommending hustle, it recommends slowing down the ever-increasing pace of 24/7 work and taking time away from identifying only as a paid worker, whatever it is you do. I don't know if the different perspective is down to age, life stage, economic status, or what -- but it seems like these two books are talking to totally different readers.

Onstad is a journalist, and that shows in this book -- it's a carefully constructed series of chapters that provide research to support the tips that are given in a quick list near the end of the book. I suggest reading the cheat sheet first, then going back to see more info on each.

How do you reclaim your weekend as restorative time-off? Take a look at these ideas:

I found the book very well laid out; lots of ideas and lots of research to back it up, told in a readable manner. It encourages readers to think of themselves as human beings with the need for connection and down-time and beauty, with a soul that needs restoration from the daily grind of making a living. 

I feel that high-powered professionals who work hours and hours a week to the exclusion of other parts of their lives could really benefit from these tips. But it also pinpoints the new entrepreneur, the one who puts everything into their business, or who is a freelancer and thus always on -- even working for yourself you need some time off from Work. 

So a great reminder for those who've been hustling for a long time and are heading toward burnout if they don't slow down. I especially loved the idea of making space, wandering, wondering. I think that every reader will find at least one or two ideas that resonate with them, as something they could incorporate into their lives. I already consciously "do less" in order to own my time, but actively searching out opportunities to play and to encounter beauty sounds like a plan. 

Do you feel that you manage your time for yourself well? If so, any tips?  But if you're feeling overwhelmed or work-burdened, I do suggest this quick read as a spur for self-care. 

Thursday, May 11, 2017

How to Be a Bawse

How to Be a Bawse / Lilly Singh
Toronto: Doubleday Canada, c2017.
224 p.

I'm officially old. I didn't know about Lilly Singh or her meteoric popularity and youtube stardom as ||Superwoman|| until I saw this book in my library.

But I sure do now! I was interested in reading about how she approaches her life as a "bawse". What is a bawse?

"A Bawse is a human being who exudes confidence, turns heads, reaches goals, finds inner strength, gets hurt efficiently and smiles genuinely- because they've fought through it all and made it out the other side." 
Essentially this is a book about personal achievement and business advice for the young. After you've read this empowering set of brief essays on life skills and attitudes for success, you might age a little and read some Danielle Laporte for personal and business advice for the fiery female leader, and then age a little more and read some business advice about leadership, commitment and integrity from Arlene Dickinson. 

This book is high energy (as Singh is). It's made up of 50 short chapters on different aspects of business and life success. Each one opens with a highly coloured photo of Singh in a costume or outfit themed to the topic. The paper stock is heavy and glossy and the chapters also include the very trendy full-page text pop-outs in varied Instagrammy fonts and colours. It's an eye catching and active style that is made for short attention spans and bites of reading time. It also means there is not a lot of space to go deep, but I find that's not what these kinds of books are for.

However, I did find that Singh has some good stuff to share, emphasizing hard work, kindness to others, and persistence. 

Here's a couple of favourite quotes:

In a bawse world there are no escalators, there are only stairs.

Say what you mean, but don't say it mean.

The universe might respect the law of attraction, but it respects a good hustle even more.

And in the end, that's really the message of her book and her career, as she shares it: you've got to hustle to get what you want. Always work hard, focus on your goals, take opportunities that arise, and make opportunities, too. I liked her repetition of the concept of hustle NOT including meanness -- she restates a couple of times that being courteous and respectful is important, and that being kind and knowing which rung of the ladder you're on doesn't mean getting walked over. 
And she certainly has hustled, all the way from Scarborough to LA, and from one youtube video to hundreds of them, some viewed over 20 million times. And a world tour. And more.

I'd recommend this to some younger people I know as a good starter guide to getting ahead. And some not-so-young readers still have things that jump out, too.  My takeaway? This quote:

Procrastination is a hustler's worst enemy.


Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Mary Green: a Regency tale

Mary Green / Melanie Kerr
Edmonton: Stonehouse Publishing, c2016.
320 p.

I was intrigued by this novel, having discovered it on Stonehouse's website after reading another of their books recently (Kalyna). It's a Regency tale, fully inspired by Kerr's study of Austen - both academically, and via the tactile experience of creating and wearing Regency clothing & creating Regency events.

The novel does have a very Austen feel; it combines elements of Mansfield Park, Sense & Sensibility, and Emma; it also seems to reference Jane Eyre. The eponymous Mary Green is a young orphan two times over (her adoptive parents have died) taken in by her adopted mother's brother. This brother travels extensively, so Mary is left to the care of an aunt along with her two cousins, Dorothea and Augusta. Of course, in a Cinderella-like twist, Mary is treated badly, not even called by her real name by these tenuous relatives, instead called Polly.

But at 21, Mary finds out she is very rich and picks up and decamps to London with the solicitors the very same day. Her whirlwind life in London as a rich young woman is predictably head-turning -- but eventually Mary decides to head to her new estate in the country and live on a more even keel.

I was a little disappointed in this turn of events -- it's like Mary was another Fanny Price, too good and modest for fashionable life. I wanted to see Mary kick up her heels and enjoy herself for once, with all this newfound fortune! Instead she is sensible and goes in for good works, like supporting the orphanage where she herself started life. 

She does, of course, get her happy ending. The romantic thread is the weakest element of this story, I felt; the story seems more focused on Mary herself, finding her way to selfhood. The romance is not 'romantic' or swoony, in fact, I thought it was really unexpected and not altogether satisfying. Fanny Price again! But if you are looking for a very Austen like novel that is much more convincing than many Austen-like 'sequels', this is a great choice. Kerr has the diction and daily details down. 

You can also check out Melanie Kerr's blog for much more information on the Regency and for reviews and thoughts on other Regency retellings, both book and movie. There is info on her first book Follies Past, a P&P prequel, and videos of her reading from Mary Green, if you wish to avail yourself of the opportunity to learn more. 

Monday, May 08, 2017

Waking Gods

Waking Gods / Sylvain Neuvel
New York: Del Rey, c2017.
324 p.

A decade after the events of Sleeping Giants, scientist Rose Franklin and Themis operators Vincent & Kara are still together, called into action when another giant robot suddenly appears in a park in central London. 

Now working for EDC (Earth Defense Corps), they are still just as eager to avoid causing any human deaths as they were 10 years ago. Unfortunately, the British government disregards their advice and precipitates a crisis with millions dead worldwide. 

Finding out who the robots are and why they've come, and what their purpose is, fills this book. All the voices from the last book are here; Rose, Vincent & Kara, as well as our anonymous narrator, with a few new ones, including a young girl in Puerto Rico with psychic visions - who turns out to be an important character indeed. 

The book is told in the same fashion as the first one, in reports, interviews, files and so on, It gives the same urgency and presence as the first, though feels a bit different here as they are facing a "disaster movie" kind of scenario, while in the first book it was more about scientific discovery itself. I found the disaster bits somewhat distressing, especially near the end -- the orgy of deaths in these kinds of tales is always disturbing. 

But this was still a solid second book in a very fresh and vibrant new series that takes on hard science with the same eagerness as human relationships. Definitely worth reading. And, though I haven't tried it myself, I hear that the audio versions of both books are excellent productions as well if you prefer that format.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Promises to Keep

Promises to Keep / Genevieve Graham
Toronto: Simon & Schuster, c2017.
336 p.

The expulsion of the Acadians is perhaps best known through Longfellow's Evangeline. But Genevieve Graham takes on this historical event in a much more readable historical romance (even if Evangeline and Gabriel do crop up in passing...)

It's 1755, and Amélie Belliveau is living with her family on an idyllic Acadian homestead. Her large family is content and well-fed, and a respected part of their community. But into that settled life comes the British army. And they start exiling Acadians, so as to take their fertile lands and comfortable settlements.

All French speaking Acadians are considered enemy French, and are packed into the holds of British ships as prisoners, with no efforts made to keep families together. These ships all head off to various ports where they intend to drop all these unwilling refugees, some of whom (as told in Evangeline) never saw one another again.

But Amélie has a secret benefactor, a Scottish soldier in the English army. He tries, to the best of his ability, to at least make sure that her family is together on the ships. And he plays a bigger role once they are at sea.

The journey of Amélie's family is circuitous and dangerous; she loses many members of her family to illness as the months progress. But she also finds people who are kind and who guide her back to her brothers and Mi'kmaq friends who had been French resisters in Acadia, and had shifted west to what is now Quebec. And there she finds a home again.

The book moves between viewpoints -- Amélie, Connor the Scottish soldier, Me'tekw of the Mi'kmaq, and others. The first half, focused on Acadia and the daily life of the people who will soon lose it, is a little bit slower moving, but the action really picks up in the second half as their forced travels begin. The romance is also a key part of the story, as it shapes the events around Amélie's experience of the expulsion. 

This was an easy reading historical drama that should appeal to those who enjoy tales of the past -- especially those that make Canadian history exciting and romantic. The author has another book inspired by Canadian history, Tides of Honourset at the time of the Halifax Explosion, so if you like sweeping romantic historicals try either one. 

Saturday, May 06, 2017

Among the Ruins

Among the Ruins / Ausma Zehanat Khan
New York: Minotaur, c2017.
357 p.

This is the third novel in the Inspector Esa Khattak series. I really enjoyed book two, The Language of Secrets, last year so quickly picked up this new one... although I still haven't gone back to read book one. I seem to have that problem with series! 

In any case, this book is a little different: Khattak is taking a break after the events that ended the last book. He's on leave, and travelling in Iran. But his idyll is interrupted when a Canadian-Iranian filmmaker, Zahra Sobanhi, is killed, and the Canadian government contacts him for some investigative help while he's there. 

He must keep a low profile and not stand out as someone asking too many questions; but he still gets involved with the fate of Iran's political prisoners, and some young protesters. He can't find what he needs without his partner, Rachel Getty, though. Back in Toronto, she starts digging into Iran's contemporary politics and floats the idea that Zahra's killing may not have been fully political. 

Iran, with all its complexities, is beautifully drawn by Khan. The daily life of regular people like Khattak's innkeeper is shown as peculiarly everyday in the face of the political regime. At the same time, his involvement with a young group of students who are anti-regime shows the silent resistance. His position as a tourist both protects him and makes his stay precarious. There is exquisite beauty there, in the landscape and the architecture of palaces and mosques. And there is extreme violence and repression, as shown by the notorious Evin prison.  

This book is very successful at showing the fine line of life under a violent regime. The characters are fascinating and engaging, for the most part. I did feel that the romantic undertones between Khattak and almost any woman he came across, whether students or women his own age, were a bit much. It's as if he couldn't have any kind of encounter without that idea cropping up. 

The other reason I found this book slightly less successful than the last was simply the fact that so much was crammed into it. Iran's politics were confusing and scary enough; to add in a whole other mystery line of smuggling, con men and so on just felt like a little too much -- the mystery and its consequences got a little muddy. I would have 100% believed that Zahra got on the wrong side of politics, I didn't need all the extra skullduggery. 

Khan supports all of her stories with extensive research and knowledge of her settings. In this book she also includes source references for further reading, for anyone interested in the facts behind her story. They are worth spending some time exploring; there is so much to learn about this place and its history.