Monthly Archives: October 2019

Perfect Sound Whatever, by James Acaster

This book was entertaining and weird. It’s part serious memoir, part comic monologue, and part music criticism — large helpings of all three. James Acaster’s usual quirky humour — generally in the form of embarrassing anecdotes about his own life — is mixed with serious reflection about his depression after a bad breakup and some professional setbacks in the year 2017. Always an ardent music lover, he decided to cope by seeking out new music from the previous year, arriving at the not-uncontroversial conclusion that 2016 was the greatest year in the history of music.

He gets into detailed analysis of many of the hundreds of artists and albums he listened to from 2016, most of which I’d never heard of, although his analysis and thoughts about the music are interesting in and of themselves. However, it was really the personal reflections — at once funny and deeply serious — that I was listening for, and was not disappointed. As noted in an earlier review, Acaster is definitely someone whose books I want to listen to rather than read, as his delivery is part of the pleasure, and I thoroughly enjoyed this one.

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Filed under Audiobook, Nonfiction -- general, Nonfiction -- memoir

Resistance Women, by Jennifer Chiaverini

This was an interesting and informative story based on the lives of several real women (one main character is a composite character, but the rest are actual people) who were part of the resistance movement in Nazi Germany. One is an American woman married to a German man, another a German woman who has studied in the US and returned home, another a Jewish student. Each of them watches, as the story unfolds from the early 1930s into the war years, as the country slides into totalitarian dictatorship, and each woman must decide what role she is willing to play, and what price she is willing to pay.

While the author’s style kept me from feeling deeply invested in the characters — I always felt at a bit of an arm’s length from them — the depiction of pre-war and war-time Germany under Hitler was fascinating, and I loved learning more about the roles women played within the Resistance.

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Filed under Fiction -- historical

Annelies, by David Gillham

The premise of Annelies is very simple: what if Anne Frank had survived? What might her life have been like after the camps? Would she have been able to adapt to postwar life in Amsterdam? How would the war have changed her? Would she have achieved her dream of being a writer?

In this novel, everything in Anne’s life unfolds exactly as it did in real life — up until the crucial moment when Anne’s sister Margot dies in Bergen-Belsen. Instead of dying herself a short time later, this fictional version of Anne survives, to eventually be liberated. As in reality, the only other survivor of the eight Jews hidden in the “Secret Annexe” is Anne’s father, Otto. Her diary has also survived, but now she is the one who must decide what to do with this record of the war years she spent in hiding.

In many ways, of course, what Gillham is writing here is just a fictionalized version of what did happen to many people — though six million European Jews died in the Nazi camps, many did not die, but survived to try to integrate back into society alongside the very people who had, in many cases, betrayed them to the Nazis. The added twist here in making Anne Frank the survivor is that she does have the diary, which makes her the bearer of a potentially powerful message to the postwar world. But does she want to share it.

When I read Elie Wiesel’s Night with my students, I often contrast one of his bleaker passages with the well-known passage from Anne Frank’s diary where she states that she believes that despite everything, people are still basically good at heart. Both Wiesel and Frank were intelligent, sensitive, thoughtful teenagers when they were sent to the camps: the difference in tone between the two passages obviously lies mostly in the fact that we never get to hear what Anne Frank’s reflections might have been like after going to Bergen-Belson. Her diary was written while she was in hiding, while Wiesel wrote Night after Auschwitz (and after having some years to reflect on the experience of the camps).

The Anne Frank who emerges in this fictional re-creation is not unlike Elie Wiesel, in some ways: angry, scarred, disillusioned, but also determined (eventually) to make sure that the world knows what happened to the Jews of Europe, and never allows it to happen again. The novel focuses mainly on the first year after the war, while she is still struggling with post-traumatic stress and survivor’s guilt, trying to forge a new relationship with her father and figure out how to live in an Amsterdam that she can never truly consider home again.

For many people, the powerful piece of writing that is Anne Frank’s diary has been boiled down in memory (or report — for those who haven’t read it) to that one inspiring quote about believing people are good at heart. People often forget that the diary is a complex portrait of a brilliant, strong-willed, sometimes troubled teenager living in constant fear for her life. Battles of will with her mother, sister and housemates, the rise and fading of a romance with literally the only other young person in the house, and Anne’s own reflections on life, war, death, God, humanity and her own legacy, make the diary in its fullness a portrait of a very real and complicated young woman — which makes the tragedy of her death all the more poignant. Some readers may not like the fact that Gillham imagines a different ending for her in Annelies, but I found the book compelling. It reminded me of the depth and complexity of the diary itself, of the difficult experiences of those who did survive the Holocaust, and, once again, of the tragedy of the life that Anne Frank and millions of others never got to live.

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Filed under Fiction -- historical

Everything You Are, by Kerry Anne King

Everything You Are is a heart-warming story rooted in family and community, with a touch of romance — just the sort of thing you’d expect if you’ve read Kerry Anne King’s previous novels. However, this one also comes with a twist of magic realism that you might more readily associate with her alter ego, Kerry Schafer, the name under which she writes urban fantasy. While the magical element here is light, and you could, if you wished, brush it off as just superstition (as some of the characters do), I loved the flavour it added to the story.

Ophelia “Phee” MacPhee inherited her grandfather’s business as a luthier (that’s someone who makes and repairs stringed instruments). Brandon Healey is an alcoholic ex-musician who gave up playing the cello after an injury to his hands. Now Brandon’s ex-wife and son are dead and he’s left with custody of a resentful teenage daughter, Ally, who plays the cello that Brandon left behind. That cello, as it turns out, was sold to Brandon when he was a child by Phee’s grandfather, and it just … might … have a curse on it. Or have a sentient soul of its own that haunts the person it’s meant to bond with for life.

So that’s the set up. The execution is a gentle, sometimes funny, sometimes heart-wrenching journey through the power of love, the power of music, and the place where the two intersect.


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Filed under Fiction -- general

The Difference, by Marina Endicott

As  you can tell from this blog, I’ve read a lot of good books over the past several months. Some very, very good books. But it’s rare to read a book that rises up and engulfs me completely, that draws me so fully into its world that I fall in love with the characters, to the extent that I have to put it aside for a few hours at a time because I’m so terrified something terrible will happen to one of these characters I love, and I don’t think I can bear it. The Difference was such a book.

If The Difference had been much less well-written than it is, I would still have loved it, for its vivid and detailed depiction of a slice of history I knew nothing about, and had never even imagined before. The novel begins in 1911, aboard the Morning Light, a trading ship out of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, bearing the main character, twelve-year-old orphan Kay Ward. She is travelling with her sister and brother-in-law, her brother-in-law being the vessel’s captain and owner, on a voyage around the world. The ins and outs of life on a sailing ship making a round-the-world voyage in the early 20th century make for fascinating reading — as do the details of a second voyage round the same route, eleven years later, on a passenger steamship. I would have loved the world of this book and everything I learned from it even if that had been all it had to offer.

But it wasn’t. The book features the deft, insightful, beautiful wordcraft I’ve come to expect from Endicott, one of Canada’s best and most underrated writers. All her books are gorgeously written, but not since Good to a Fault has she created characters so vivid and real for me.  The stubborn, difficult Kay, her sometime tutor Mr. Brimner (a clergyman who travels to his mission post on the Morning Light), and Aren (the boy Kay’s sister impulsively buys from a group of impoverished South Sea Islanders), were all so dear to me by halfway through the book I wanted to hide the book in the freezer for awhile because I was so worried about what might happen to them. The other characters — Kay’s sister Thea and her husband Francis, the crew of the ship, other people Kay encounters on her travels — are every bit as vividly drawn, so much so that the death of a relatively minor character hits the reader with as much devastating force as it does the other characters.

The central plot point of the story springs, as Endicott tells the reader in an Afterword, from a real-life incident: a white woman aboard a vessel in the South Pacific buys a native child for four pounds of tobacco. The casual racism of that real-life incident becomes, in the novel, inextricably bound up with the colonial assumption that one is “bettering the lives” of native people by taking them out of their indigenous surroundings, is a thread throughout this novel. Before the novel starts, in scenes that haunt Kay’s nightmares, both Kay and Thea lived with their father at the residential school he ran for indigenous children in Western Canada. While Thea, a young adult at the time, buys completely into the “white man’s burden” image of the “good” they are doing there, young and impressionable Kay only knows that her best friend Annie has been taken far from her own home and parents. Kay is wracked with regret at the things that happened to the children at that school. Her fierce refusal to accept Thea’s view of colonialism becomes a defining feature in her relationship with Aren, once he becomes part of their shipboard family — and even more so, once the family finds itself back in stodgy, conservative Nova Scotia.

To say more would be to say too much — perhaps I already have said too much — but I loved this book so much that I wanted to live on board the Morning Light forever, sailing warm southern seas with Kay, Aren, Mr. Brimner and the rest. This is a wonderful story told by a master storyteller. One of my very favourite books of this year.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- historical