‘Everyone Brave is Forgiven’ by Chris Cleave

There had to be a really good reason for me to pick up yet another novel about WW 2 since I’m not a fan per se. Although I must say, I could list some really good ones I’ve read in the last number of years, and I imagine so could you. Since this was a book club assignment and Cleave is one of my favourite authors, I actually signed on quite willingly.

Everyone Brave is Forgiven is basically a wartime love story focusing on the blitz, the Siege of Malta, and racism against blacks in the UK at the time. He wanted to link to his grandfather who served in Malta, and his grandmother, who was an ambulance driver and school teacher. The character of Mary is inspired by Cleave’s grandmother, yet it is not her story. When war is declared, Mary North leaves finishing school unfinished, goes straight to the War Office, and signs up. She thought she would make a rather good spy, but bewilderingly ends up as a teacher for the misfit children who were not shipped to the countryside. She ends up fighting a war within a war, defying prejudice to protect the children her country would rather forget.

This author has an amazing talent for fiction. His writing is beautiful, smart, insightful, and fresh. Although often dark, the novel has humour threaded throughout which, for me,  has the effect of making it more poignant. I read his other books a long time ago, but I think they were better paced than this one. It did drag a little in the second half (a common problem with well researched historical fiction). In Little Bee, he brings his own experience of growing up in Cameroon to questions of identity and belonging as a third culture kid. In Gold, he tackles the competitive world of sport and how fraught winning and losing can be. I haven’t read Incendiary yet, but I will soon. There was a movie made of it with Ewan McGregor.

His grandfather died before he could read the manuscript because Cleave didn’t want to give it to him till he’d edited it completely. He learned a hard lesson with that and said, “never be afraid of showing someone you love a working draft of yourself.”

‘You May Want to Marry my Husband’ by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

A very fine and beloved author died too young yesterday of ovarian cancer. She loved the pleasures of everyday life evident in her writing (Encyclopedia of Ordinary Things). She had a magnificent sense of humour evident even in her children’s books (Little Pea). Ten days before she died she wrote a dating advertisement for her husband of 26 years in The New York Times entitled:

You May Want to Marry My Husband

The piece reflects her generous spirit and her affinity for bringing people together. It is heartbreaking but you won’t want to miss it. Read it and hug someone near and dear to you after you do.

‘The Break’ by Katherena Vermette

Just finished one of the contenders for this year’s Canada Reads. Candy Palmater will be defending The Break during the week of March 27 – 30 when five celebrities battle out the question, “What is the one book Canadians need now?” Here’s my prediction…although I have only read one of the other five contenders, I started three of the others and found them hard to get into. The Break is compelling and puts indigenous women and their issues in the spotlight so I not only think it will win, but that it deserves to win.

The novel begins with a young mother witnessing a violent crime on a barren cold “break” in the city…we’ve all seen it, a long empty swath slicing through forest or subdivisions with nothing more than robotic looking hydro towers holding up electrical wires for as far as the eye can see. The attack in ‘the break’ becomes the focal point of the novel with everything else connected to it.

This Métis author, in her first novel, forges a very real look at indigenous people struggling to integrate into urban centres while still having a strong relationship to the land. The author creates empathy for the indigenous women but equally helps the reader get beyond various stereotypes, to see that the white police officer who appears jaded is not a bad man (albeit oblivious to his own racism), he’s just been doing a hard job for a very long time. And the homeless juvenile delinquent has been abandoned herself and therefore lashes out–she is living in the winter of Winnipeg but also in the winter of her soul. A young indigenous mother marries a white guy and moves into a better neighbourhood believing it will bring her and her children safety, when all it brings is alienation and self-doubt. “Vermette offers us a dazzling portrayal of the patchwork quilt of pain and trauma that women inherit, of the big and small half-stories that make up a life.” (Globe and Mail)

It is a story of brokenness but also of amazing strength and resilience, the importance of family, and how to break out of old patterns of understanding or behaviour. There is such beauty and such rift in this very complicated community in North Winnipeg where the author grew up. Her ability to capture such a comprehensive snapshot of Canada from various perspectives makes it my strong choice to win Canada Reads 2017.

Check out a CBC interview with the author, which is definitely worth a visit. Just click on this link: How Katherena Vermette turned a terrible vision into a visionary debut novel

‘The Couple Next Door’ by Shari Lapena

A baby is kidnapped while the parents are just next door at a dinner party. The babysitter had cancelled and it was suggested that it wouldn’t be ok to bring the baby along to the event, so…with the baby just on the other side of the wall, it would work to bring along the baby monitor and they would go check every half hour right?…what could go wrong? Well, of course mayhem does in fact ensue, with many small twists and turns to keep the reader interested along the way. It did make me think about the McCann case, a British couple whose child disappeared from a holiday home in Portugal, because unfairly often the poor grief-stricken parents themselves become suspects.

Marketed as a psychological page-turning thriller, it was not as great as the hype surrounding this book, and it was just ok for me. I happily finished it, but there was nothing very scary or remarkable about it and it was quite predictable. The characters were two dimensional stereotypes and at times annoying in their stupidity. The last thriller I read (I See You) had a far more chilling surprise ending and seemed much more realistic. A superior novel about a child kidnapping is Jacquelyn Mitchard’s The Deep End of the Ocean.

I suppose as commercial fiction this book was readable enough, much like Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train, but I am hungry for something more literary now. Thrillers have their place as an occasional treat (like potato chips or chocolate) but a steady diet will leave you feeling filled up with the wrong thing entirely. On to something more nutritious and edifying!

‘Precious and Grace’ by Alexander McCall Smith

precious-and-gracestarstarstarFor fans of this author and his series, reading another instalment is like coming home and putting on an old sweatshirt at the end of a long and tiring workday. The languorous pace and comfort of familiarity kicks in immediately, along with the usual philosophical musings about the restorative nature of a cup of tea and such ponderings as how to approach forgiveness with grace. McCall  Smith uses gentle humour to address serious life lessons.

Precious Ramotswe and Grace Makutsi have now been working together so long in this 17th instalment, offering their wisdom to the community in Gaborone, that there is a lot to recap in case someone is new to the series. The author does this skilfully, giving necessary background information that is necessary for newbies to this long running series, without making it cumbersome and boring for serious fans who have read them all. So I give the author kudos for doing that well. However, I didn’t find the mystery topics very intriguing this time.

A Canadian woman is looking to rediscover her childhood in Botswana and someone else close to Mma Ramotswe needs help unravelling from a dangerous pyramid scheme. Precious and Grace have other adventures and misadventures, one involving a puff adder (a traditionally built snake!), but in general the series is becoming much more ‘reflective’ than ‘detective’ which is too bad because its genius was always being able to be both of those in equal measures.

‘I See You’ by Clare Mackintosh

i-see-youstarstarstarstarSometimes you just need a gripping page turner. I read much of this one on the train and because it is about women being stalked on trains, it did creep me out a little, but it also held my attention so well, I almost missed my stop! The scariest stories are usually the most ordinary, where the sinister suspect is actually someone very close to you. I See You is the second psychological thriller from this British former policewoman, and both this book and her first one called I Let You Go have met with great success. It’s the perfect beach read, even if you’re not on vacation!

One day when Zoe Walker is looking at a newspaper on the train, she is surprised to find her own photo in the classified section in an ad she did not place. The next day there is another woman in the advert, and everyday after that; a different woman each day. And some of these women have been brutally murdered or assaulted. Is this a mistake? A coincidence? A case of internet fraud? Or is someone keeping track of every move they make…? Halfway through I had three or four possible suspects identified, of course that’s the trick used in all thrillers–make many of the characters look guilty to keep you guessing till the end. The ending was surprising but the final twist was best of all!

‘Small Great Things’ by Jodi Picoult

small-great-thingsstarstarstarstar“If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” Martin Luther King

Small Great Things is vintage Picoult–suspense, empathy, and humour used to great effect. Picoult doesn’t stray much from her usual formula. She typically examines an issue from all angles with the use of multiple character voices, creating tension around a conflict, moral dilemmas, and possible outcomes. Why change a  highly effective strategy if it results in an engaging novel? Even though I find some of her writing a bit cliché she does her research well and I have found all of her novels to be ‘page-turners-plus’, evoking reflection and good discussion as well as being a compelling read. Her books are perfect for book clubs. It is obvious that she is very passionate about this particular topic which has resulted in a very good story and a very important conversation about race, prejudice, privilege, and justice.

The novel deals with racism, white supremacy, and hate crimes in the United States. Because of the prevailing political climate in the US surrounding the last election, this is a timely topic indeed and feels very close to current events. The story begins when a white couple have their first baby in hospital and refuse the care of a black neonatal nurse. A tragedy ensues, setting off a legal battle full of courtroom drama.

Picoult gives voice to three people who round out the story: the black nurse, the white supremacist, and the defence lawyer. Picoult humbly points out that no matter how non-racist some white people may feel they are, racism is still rampant in North American society. She digs deep to discover and reveal painful truths such as how much easier it is for bad white people to hide behind the colour of their skin, than for good people of colour to be regarded as good.