Monthly Archives: May 2020

‘The War that Saved My Life’ by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley


Age 9+

A disabled girl and her brother are evacuated from London to the English countryside during World War II. Nine-year-old Ada has never left her one-room flat. Her mother is too humiliated by Ada’s twisted foot to let her outside. So when her little brother Jamie is shipped out of London to escape the war, Ada doesn’t waste a minute—she sneaks out to join him.

This award winning Young Adult novel is a moving story of triumph against all the odds. Although it is set in WW 2 and deals with child abuse, it is a beautiful historical fiction about love, struggle, loss, belonging, courage, and new beginnings. It is unsentimental, suspenseful, and written in a simple style that is easy to read, yet will appeal to children and adults alike. It made me think of books by one of my favourite authors, Kate DiCamillo, who has a similar style and also writes books for children without ever talking down to them.

For those struggling to focus on reading in this pandemic, cross-over books like this (which are classified YA but are compelling for adults too) are a perfect choice. And there is a sequel called The War I Finally Won.

 

‘The Royal Secret’ by Lucinda Riley

In the UK this book is published under the title:  The Love Letter.

An ambitious young journalist, unravels a dangerous mystery that threatens to devastate the British monarchy. Keeping secrets is a dangerous game. When Sir James Harrison, one the greatest actors of his generation, passes away at the age of ninety-five, he leaves behind not just a heartbroken family but also a secret so shocking, it could rock the English establishment to its core. Joanna stumbles on something dark beneath the glamour: the mention of a letter James Harrison has left behind–the contents of which many have been desperate to keep concealed for over seventy years. As she peels back the veil of lies that has shrouded the secret, she realises that she’s close to uncovering something deadly serious–and the royal family may be implicated. Before long, someone is on her tracks, attempting to prevent her from discovering the truth. And they’ll stop at nothing to reach the letter before she does.

For pure escapism, this royal scandal fit the bill, but I found it weaker than The Lavender Garden and the Seven Sisters series. This is a thrilling page-turner, but I found it a bit overlong and the plot rather improbable and exaggerated. If you are new to Riley, don’t start with this one, but if you are a diehard fan like I am, it’s still a fun engaging read and also interesting because she wrote it 20 years ago. It was recently republished so it definitely shows how the author has improved in her writing!

‘Jayber Crow: The Life Story of Jayber Crow, Barber, of the Port William Membership, as Written by Himself’ by Wendell Berry

“You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out–perhaps a little at a time.”
“And how long is that going to take?”
“I don’t know. As long as you live, perhaps.”
“That could be a long time.”
“I will tell you a further mystery,” he said. “It may take longer.”

The really, really good books will always still be around when we finally get to them. But sometimes we wonder why it had to take so long? I’m embarrassed to say how long ago I borrowed this book from my sister-in-law Ina. She’s an avid reader of really good books and a very patient person. Why did it take so long? Well the usuals–new books blinking at me, the sheer volume of things that demand to be read on shelf, kindle, and library book pile. But I am finally reading some books on my own shelf during the pandemic, and that feels good. Wendell Berry strikes me as a patient person so I think it’s ok. His writing reminds me of other authors like Marilynne Robinson, Kent Haruf, Mary Lawson, William Kent Krueger, and David Rhodes. Berry writes with heart, soul, humour, and wisdom at a slow, gentle thoughtful pace that paints a picture rather than taking the reader for a thrilling ride.

Jayber Crow is a fine novel beautifully written. It’s a slow, gentle story that richly imagines ordinary people in a small rural town and grapples with humanity–love and loss, joy and despair, death and life, judgement and grace, as well as alienation and community. For some odd reason I have never figured out, I have a hard time remembering endings of books, but this one was so poignant I will never forget it.

Berry is a farmer, poet, activist and academic which is an interesting combination. Berry understands the connection that people have with place and cares about stewardship of the earth. From the symbolism of the river to the rootlessness of his orphaned wanderings, to the exploration of a hard-won faith, Berry is giving us variations on some themes of Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn. His love from a distance hints at Dante’s love for Beatrice. And yet it celebrates the simple and ordinary things in life that give us pleasure and keep us going. Jayber Crow, a seminary drop-out, humble barber, church janitor, and grave digger is telling his story on his own terms, and it just feels right.

‘Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line’ by Deepa Anappara

The flyleaf sets this novel up best:
“Through market lanes crammed with too many people, dogs, and rickshaws, past stalls that smell of cardamom and sizzling oil, below a smoggy sky that doesn’t let through a single blade of sunlight, and all the way at the end of the Purple metro line lies a jumble of tin-roofed homes where nine-year-old Jai lives with his family. From his doorway he can spot the glittering lights of the city’s fancy high-rises, and though his mother works as a maid in one, to him they seem a thousand miles away. Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line plunges readers deep into this neighbourhood to trace the unfolding of a tragedy through the eyes of a child as he has his first perilous collisions with an unjust and complicated wider world.”

I loved the premise of three friends venturing into the most dangerous corners of a sprawling Indian city as detectives to find missing classmates. But I’m feeling conflicted about this novel. I found the writing to be clunky and cumbersome, without flow. And then I read her Afterword where she gives her reasons for writing the novel and it placed it all in context for me. No doubt she is a good writer. To me the reading experience felt a little like getting lost in a crowded, overstimulating maze of a Mumbai market, from which I might never emerge…perhaps that was the point. Upon reflection, the novel is better than I realised while reading it.

I respect the author for taking on a subject which doesn’t shy away from difficult issues of squalor, pollution, poverty, slumdogs, child trafficking, inequalities, and corrupt police, without becoming a stereotypical narrative about equating poor people with their problems. She did make me taste, and smell, and feel the setting. The characters in this novel are socially the lowest of the low but they have dignity. Living in poverty is hard work and requires exceptional skills just for survival. This novel does capture all of that really well.

This is a book from the Women’s Prize for Fiction long-list (click here), but didn’t make it to the short-list (click here). It’s a list I have deep respect for and every year look forward to, because it always includes many very readable novels on interesting topics written by women from around the world.

Note: Too late I discovered a glossary in the back with Indian words which would have been helpful to know at the beginning and I wish I’d read the Afterword first. So for the publishers: make the Afterword a Foreword, and please let the reader know about the glossary before reading the book.

‘A Family is a Family is a Family’ by Sara O’Leary and Qin Leng


“Families are composed of love regardless of how they may be configured.”

When a teacher asks her students to describe their family, one child is worried about what to say because she suspects that her family is different. But as she listens to her classmates talk about who lives with them and loves them (one raised by a grandmother, another has two dads, one has many step-siblings, and another has a new baby in the family) she realises that diversity is a good thing!  This is a warm and whimsical look at many types of families, with soft art and gentle humour.

Some examples of the writing:
“There are lots of kids in our family. Mom and Dad just keep coming home with more.”
“Both my moms are terrible singers. And they both like to sing really loud.”
“I have more grandparents than anybody else I know.”
“One week Mom gets me. The next week Dad does. Fair’s fair.”
“Some of the kids were Dad’s when he met Mom. Some were Mom’s when she met Dad. Now we all belong to each other.”
“One of my dads is tall and one is short. They both give good hugs.”
“Someone asked my foster mother to point our her real children. She replied, ‘Oh, I don’t have any imaginary children, all my children are real!'”

‘The Remains of the Day’ by Kazuo Ishiguro

Quite enjoyed this old world novel about a butler who travels around the UK in his employer’s car. On the trip he does a lot of reflecting about his life, his vocation, and possible regrets and missed opportunities because of his never wavering devotion to duty. Think Carson in Downton Abbey and English class conditioning. The novel takes in fascism, two world wars, and an unrealised love between the butler and his housekeeper.

The book reads like a classic, and to be honest not much happens in it, but its strength is in subtlety. It’s reflective of a bygone era, atmospheric, and the strength of the novel is in the writing, indeed, it won the Man Booker Prize for fiction in 1989. There is no doubt that Nobel prize winning author Ishiguro is a master at his craft, which is also evident in another novel of his that met with great success called Never Let Me Go. It was shortlisted for the Booker in 2005. Both that novel and this one have been made into movies with star studded casts.