Monthly Archives: May 2011

The Ghost Brush, by Katherine Govier

This was a wonderful book that I looked forward to reading and greatly enjoyed … but I also felt cheated! You’ll have to read to the end of the review to find out why …

The Ghost Brush is one of my very favourite kinds of historical novels — a novel that unearths the life of a woman whose story has been hidden from history because she’s been overshadowed by a famous man. In this case the woman is a Japanese painter named Oei, and the famous man is her father, Hokusai.  They lived in nineteenth-century Japan, just as their country, closed off from much of the world, was about to be “discovered” by the West and rapidly modernized. This intimate story of two artists unfolds against the background of events that will reshape an entire society.

Oei is Hokusai’s apprentice, assistant, caregiver — and, eventually, the one who paints many of the great works attributed to her father. She is a non-traditional woman in an extremely traditional society, and throughout her life she struggles between the desire to be recognized as an artist in her own right, and her loyalty and duty to her father. In the end, loyalty and duty (and the expectations of other artists and art historians) win out to the point that Oei’s work is almost erased and forgotten.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- historical

Planting Dandelions, by Kyran Pittman

Anyone who’s enjoyed Kyran Pittman as a blogger (originally at Notes to Self, now at Planting Dandelions, I guess to synch blog and book under one easy-to-find title), or as a writer for Good Housekeeping magazine, will no doubt already have their hands on a copy of Planting Dandelions, her just-released memoir. Even if, like me, you have to convince the guys at Chapters to get it out of the box in the back of the store because it just arrived off the truck (the Chapters guy made me feel the cover so I could appreciate how freshly-arrived in the store it was. “It’s still cool from being on the truck,” he said).

If you’re not already a fan, but you like frank and funny memoirs (oh, and you know I do!!), then you have to check this out. Especially if you like frank and funny memoirs about marriage and parenting. Pittman’s writing is hilarious but also beautiful, disarmingly honest, and sometimes a little painful (but in the good way).

There are parts of her story I can’t relate to at all (like settling down into marriage and family life after being a self-confessed “wild child” — hard for me to relate since I was, as you all know, the least wild child ever) and parts I can relate to all too well — like the fabulous chapter “D.I.Y. spells Die,” all about her shortcomings in the homemaking department. But whether Pittman is giving us a glimpse into a life quite different from our own, or shining a glaring spotlight on a life that’s far too much like our own, her writing is always fresh, revealing and funny.

One note about this review: although Pittman lives in Arkansas and you’ll see her reviewed and interviewed as an Arkansas author, I have taken the liberty of tagging her both as a Canadian and a Newfoundland author. Not only is she from here originally, she is the daughter of one of Newfoundland’s literary icons, poet Al Pittman. You don’t need to know or care who her father is to appreciate her work on its own merits, but if you do happen to know that fact and you’ve enjoyed the fine-tuned language that raises Planting Dandelions a step above many memoirs,  you’ll recognize that the poetry in the Pittman family didn’t stop with Al.

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Filed under Canadian author, Newfoundland author, Nonfiction -- memoir

What God Hath Joined, by Patty Froese Ntihemuka

There probably isn’t a less-respected genre in fiction than “Christian romance,” since it draws all the contempt many readers have for romance and all the contempt (sadly, sometimes deserved) many people have for Christian fiction. I am not a big romance reader myself, but sometimes I like to curl up with a good love story that I  know will have a happy ending, and if the main characters’ faith happens to be an integral part of the story, I like that too. Which means occasionally I read a Christian romance novel, and I’ve rarely read one I enjoyed more than Patty Froese Ntihemuka’s What God Hath Joined.

The premise is simple: Leah, mother of four-year-old Josiah, has been pretending to be a widow ever since her no-good husband ended up in jail and she moved back with her father, a widowed Methodist minister. Now her husband, John, has done his time and cleaned up his act, and would like to win Leah back, but doesn’t know if he dares approach her. By what must be admitted is a fairly stunning coincidence, they end up in the same small town, and John has to figure out how to earn Leah’s trust when the whole town thinks he’s dead.

With a romance novel, the happy ending is never in doubt; all that matters is how the author chooses to get us there. Ntihemuka does a great job of bringing us along this not-too-twisted road to the eventual reunion, with some nice details and character development along the way. Reformed bad boy John is a particularly appealing character (but then, I do like bad boys, reformed or otherwise). If you like inspirational romances at all, then I recommend this one very highly.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- historical, Fiction -- inspirational

The Living End, by Lisa Samson

Pearly Laurel’s whole life revolves around her husband, Joey. When Joey dies suddenly after many years of happy marriage, Pearly doesn’t see the point in life. She doesn’t share the Christian faith that sustained Joey, and she decides that with him gone, her best bet is to kill herself. While she’s planning that, she comes across Joey’s “bucket list” and decides that as a tribute to him, she will complete all the items on his list before taking her own life.

You don’t have to be a plot genius to figure out that in the process of working her way through Joey’s unfinished to-do list (which includes things like hiking the Appalachian trail) Pearly finds not only the will to live but faith in God. Nor do you get any points for figuring out that an array of diverse characters will gather around to give Pearly a sense of family and something to live for.

While Lisa Samson is one of my favourite contemporary Christian authors because her view of human nature is so much more realistic than that of many people who write in the “inspirational” genre, this wasn’t my favourite of her books. I found the story too predictable, Pearly’s character a bit off-putting, and one major plot point near the end far too unbelievable for me to take seriously. Mind you, this is still head and shoulders above most of what’s marketed as fiction for Christian women, but it didn’t grab me the way some of Samson’s other books have done. It might grab you, though, and if the concept appeals to you it’s well worth giving the story a whirl — just don’t expect a page-turner that will keep you guessing.

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The Midwife of Venice, by Roberta Rich

The Midwife of Venice is a well-researched historical novel that explores midwifery and anti-Semitism in sixteenth-century Venice. Hannah, the most skilled midwife in the Jewish ghetto, is called upon to attend the birth of a Christian child — the son of a wealthy and powerful count. Hannah wouldn’t consider risking her own safety and that of others in the ghetto by breaking the law in this way — except that the money the count is offering may be enough to ransom her husband, held prisoner and about to be sold into slavery on the island of Malta.

The novel alternates between Hannah’s point of view and Isaac’s, building suspense as treachery, plague, and murder make it more and more difficult for the two to achieve their goal of being reunited. The Midwife of Venice was a real page-turner and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- historical

The Woefield Poultry Collective, by Susan Juby

Did you ever have the experience of reading a book, then reading a bunch of reviews about it and thinking, “Did all the reviewers just read the same book I did?” That’s kind of the way I was with The Woefield Poultry Collective. I did enjoy it, and in fact read through it quite quickly and with great interest, but my reading was somewhat spoiled by what I thought was a glaring flaw in the novel that none of the many positive reviews I read seemed to pick up on.

The novel tells the story of Prudence, an idealistic young writer from New York City who’s excited about sustainable living and organic farming. She inherits a rundown Canadian farm from a relative she barely knows, and moves onto her new land full of ideas and enthusiasm. An assortment of quirky characters shows up to round out the cast as Prudence tries to go back to the land.

It sounds like what it is — a fun, light read. For me, all the fun came from the supporting characters, each of whom gets a turn at telling the story from their point of view. Earl, the cynical old handyman; Sara, the over-earnest eleven-year-old who raises prize chickens; and most of all, for me, Seth, the alcoholic twenty-year-old celebrity blogger who lives across the road until his mother kicks him out and he comes to Prudence looking for room and board in exchange for work — are all great characters. Distinctive, believable, funny but also touching. They carried the story for me.

And then there’s Prudence.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- general