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Kyle McGinley has been a ward of the State for some eight years, being shifted and moved from one foster home to another, after the father abandons him... Now at sixteen he is weary to move yet to another crowded family and busy place. En route there he decides to stop talking. Just keep his mouth shut, zipped. He needs time; he longs to be by himself, work things out in his mind, not having to listen to the Children Aid's counselor, not to the adults or anybody in the house he is taken to...
Jan Andrews is a seasoned, internationally recognized author of teen fiction, based near Ottawa, Canada. Her novel is of a genre that I don't know very much about, I have to admit. Yet, I was immediately drawn into the story and the characters - not only Kyle but also the foster parents, Jill and Scott. They live on a farm and are deeply involved with the nature and land around them and beyond. The family - to the surprise of Kyle - consists of the couple, a dog and a cat.
Surprisingly for Kyle, he discovers companionship and help from totally unexpected quarters. Help that opens new possibilities for him, in his mind and within the surroundings he finds himself. I won't say anything more about the content because it is worthwhile for the reader to accompany Kyle through the "Silent Summer" step by step.
Jan Andrews novel is without doubt imagined from experiences she has had over the years. It may be classified (on the back cover) as "teen fiction", yet I would suggest it is as rewarding for parents of teens and anybody who has any contact with young people who need to find their own way to grow up... and that means all of us.
It feels good to read an entertaining story like this: Tail of the Blue Bird by Ghanaian writer, Nii Ayikwei Parkes. He is presenting us with an original murder mystery, an adventure story that moves beyond fact-based evidence with believable, well drawn characters. Despite its fantasy-like cover image, Nii Ayikwei Parkes's novel is firmly grounded in modern-day Ghanaian reality that incorporates urban as well as rural life and with it the need to bridge the different cultural, linguistic and spiritual traditions. The author brings all the different narrative strands convincingly together and does so in a lively and engaging way.
Most of the action takes place in a remote village two and a half hours drive from Accra, the capital. The young forensic expert, Kayo, has been dispatched to the village with his police sidelick, Garba, to investigate the foul smelling remains of what appears to be of human nature. The solving of the case has political ramification for him and the police inspector in Accra. Time is of the essence... but evidence cannot be obtained or verified without the cooperation of village elders... and their world operates on different parameters than city people would assume.
Nii Ayikwei Parkes pulls the reader very quickly into this different world; his characters, Kayo and Garba, and the central figures in the village are very well drawn; their personalities are endearing and affecting and at times surprising in their own ways. The author's depiction of the northern Ghana landscape is evocative... and you can easily imagine the presence and the power of the ancestors' spirits. Just one caution, the language, especially the dialogs take a bit of getting used to for most of us. My recommendation: just relax into it and the fast paced story; it will become easy after a while. While terms are not directly explained, the author finds an organic way to let you know what they mean in due course.
Lynn Coady's new story collection, HELLGOING, brings together nine self-contained stories that take a realistic and thought provoking look at a wide range of human relationships in today's world. Reading them we are pushed or pulled into something like a voyeur role, observing in close-up fragments of ongoing or evolving relationships between an array of distinct characters, be they in couples, with family or friends, or crossing paths in professional or casual encounters. Some of the stories can take you on a bit of a rough ride; they rarely are smooth, easy or the content just pleasant. While they might leave us with a sense of unease they also stimulate us to consider more deeply the underlying questions and issues that the author raises. Are they a reflection of contemporary reality or, at minimum, of certain aspects of it? Very likely. Among the quotes on the book's back cover, one (by the National Post) reads: "...There is a searing honesty here about humankind's inability or unwillingness, to make an effort at connection, but the author's own humanity rescues her vision from descending into despair or nihilism." I couldn't have stated my reaction any better. If you look for romantic love or happiness, you will not easily find it in any of these stories.
One story from the collection has remained etched in my mind more than any of the others, titled, Mr. Hope. It is written from the perspective of a young female teacher, who, upon returning to her first school, is reliving intense childhood memories, among them her first encounters with her teacher, Mr. Hope. Lynn Coady exquisitely captures the feelings of a young girl, her anxieties but also her independent spirit. Interweaving the vividly reimagined child's perception with that of the hindsight of the adult looking back, the author tells a story that not only conveys narrative tension and inner drama, she convincingly brings out the girl's emotional confusion and conflicts in a way that will, in some way or another, sound familiar to most readers.
Among the other stories, some characters stand out for me more than others, such as a nun in a hospital who applies her counselling to get an anorexic girl with a religious obsession to take "some food". The title story tackles another important and well-known subject: deep and lasting family strains going back decades that the female protagonist cannot shake off. However, a "reunion" demands a different response so many years later. While all stories are written from the distance of a third person narrator, they do often cut through the surface of the characters' 'normalcy' and expose what lies underneath. Coady's stories focus more on the women's mental state of mind than that of their male counterparts. There is, for example, the young bride who has discovered that "twenty-something" sex is no longer adequate (or never was) and her new partner is a willing if somewhat reluctant participant in the new experiments. Coady pinpoints many of the ambitions and anxieties that younger women experience, whether in private or professional life. She is an astute observer of people and scenarios and her depiction of her central characters is not without a sense of humour or irony.
Canadian Lynn Coady, is with HELLGOING the recent winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize 2013 and a finalist for the Writers Trust Fiction Prize. [Friederike Knabe]
Why do people travel? Because they are curious about other places and other people, or enjoy to be tourists looking for excitement far from home... Others leave their home because they are forced to leave for any number of reasons... There will be many answers to this question. Michelle de Kretser, an award winning Sri Lankan author living in Australia, delves below the surface of traveling and travelers in her novel, QUESTIONS OF TRAVEL, digging into a wide range of issues and scenarios: from tourists and to asylum seekers.
Against the backdrop of recent history - from the nineteen sixties to post 9/11 - in Australia, Sri Lanka and European cities like, in particular, London and Paris, Ms de Kretser imagines two central characters, leading two very different lives, experiencing two very different realities. She tells their stories in alternating chapters with decades as chapter headings. One, Laura, leaves her home in Australia, travels, thanks to an inheritance, to explore, primarily Europe. She enjoys experiencing her freedom and takes in the diversity that far away places can offer. When she runs out of funds, she takes on odd jobs that allow her to continue to enjoy life, at least for a time. The other, Ravi, while growing up in modest circumstances in Sri Lanka, also has dreams for himself and his family. "His thumbnail traced journeys across continents. He went for a walk across the world." However, political circumstances force him to flee his homeland; the personal loss and trauma he experiences throws him off balance and into a life that he cannot easily come to terms with. While Laura's and Ravi's lives only tangentially intersect, the reader can ponder each "case study" separately or draw conclusions from comparing or differentiating them.
Michelle de Kretser draws on her familiarity with both societies to create an expansive portrait of her central characters, Laura and Ravi, their surroundings and their very distinct experiences and perspectives on what matters in their lives. A study in social, cultural and psychological contrasts. While Laura hopes to leave her earlier life behind, Ravi carries his life and especially his love deep in his heart with him. Emotional freedom on the one hand, emotional ties and dependencies on the other...
De Kretser's language is often engaging, her commentary on places and people witty and to the point. "Paris was surely her reward for irregular verbs committed to memory, for the existentialist struggle of persisting to the last page of "La nausee". Yet, I found myself sometimes overwhelmed with details and sheer number of secondary characters surrounding, in particular, Laura. Overall, I preferred Ravi as a more authentic character and his struggles to survive and maintain his integrity affected me more than Laura's emotional shallowness and willingness to compromise. (3.5 stars)
Dennis Bock's GOING HOME AGAIN intrigued me by its title, suggesting a subject matter that I relate to in more ways than one. It also sounded like a very different novel from his earlier ones, THE ASH GARDEN and THE COMMUNIST'S DAUGHTER that are both anchored in a historical context and that I liked very much. GOING HOME AGAIN then is a contemporary story as much as a timeless private and even intimate story about love and loss, winning and losing, and making choices.
The story follows the journey - physical and especially emotional - of Charlie Bellerose, the narrator, who flees Canada for Europe in an effort to distance himself from the recent and not so recent tragedies and upheavals in his life. Now, twenty years later, the middle-aged, successful and confident father of an adored daughter, returns to Toronto, hoping to restart his life back "home". Bock's writing is affecting and personable as he follows the ups and downs of his hero's journey and inner struggles. We see the world through the eyes of Charlie, including his friends, his past and present lovers, and, last but not least, his brother Nate. His depiction of places, such as Montreal, Toronto or Madrid, where he eventually establishes himself in Europe, is lively and colourful.
It is often said that you have to leave home before you appreciate it fully. For Charlie his journey home is much more complex and difficult than that. He and his brother Nate, orphans since a young age, grow up into very different individuals and, not surprisingly, clash in ways that lead to emotional tension and separation. Will reconciliation be possible upon his return? In Europe, Charlie has strived to live "in the moment" but he is not really the type of person to succeed in this endeavor: he is too sensitive and his emotional ties turn out to be stronger than he would like them to be.
GOING HOME AGAIN was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize 2013. Personally, I was in two minds about my views of the novel. On the one hand, it reads very well and I for one felt engaged with the story and enjoyed the way Bock unravels his protagonist's character, some dramatic twists as well as the back-story over time. On the other hand I felt not totally satisfied with the story and several narrative strands that were left underdeveloped. [Friederike Knabe]
This review refers to the newer, expanded edition, published in 2012 by List. In it the actual story, something between a memoir and a fictional reworking of the author's experiences during her school years is just some sixty five pages long. The central character is a young girl, daughter of a pastor in a smallish town in the then German Democratic Republic. The time frame encompasses the late nineteen sixties to early seventies and starts when the girl in ten years old. The author uses a mix of the child's voice and its grown up counterpart reflecting back. We follow the girl's school experiences: she is and is treated as an outsider because, at her parents' decision, she doesn't join the Young Pioneers and other required youth organization. Much of the girl's experiences are conveyed through her own feelings of isolation, fear and the discrimination she is exposed to.At the same time, emboldened by her parents' beliefs she shows emotional strength and resistance to what she perceives as unfair. For example, she achieves the best notes in class, but because she is not a Young Pioneer her name will not be listed on the display for the best students.
We get some glimpses into her family life, the moral imperatives set by her pastor father, the difficulties her siblings have that are similar to hers. Little is said about the wider context or insights given into her surroundings or other children's experiences in the strict and imposing education system at the time. For readers not familiar with the realities in the German Democratic Republic, additional information will be helpful to place the story and the characters into a wider context. Fortunately, the author has added a list of term definitions to the text. In addition the book contains a longer section that follows the author's path to the story's initial publication and records the very varied audience reactions to her readings and presentations since then. Among the questions asked of her, two stand out for me: how representative is the author's experience? and What lessons can audiences in Germany and elsewhere draw from her treatment by teachers and school authorities? [Friederike Knabe]
Chinelo Okparanta came to my attention after her story, "America', was a finalist for the 2013 Caine Prize for African Writing. It tells the touching story of a very special friendship between two young women that challenges Nigerian traditions and social conventions... 'America' has been published as one of ten stories in this, her first collection, Happiness, like Water. Okparanta is without a doubt becoming a promising representative of the new generation of Nigerian and African writers who are giving growing prominence to the field of African short fiction writing.
Chinelo Okparanta's engaging stories in this book, some set in Nigeria, some among Nigerian immigrants in the US, explore a wide range of topical subjects and concerns. Mostly told through the eyes of a first person protagonist, she writes with confidence and sensitivity, her language is subtle, yet also lucid and powerful.
Despite of the short fiction format, her characters are realistically drawn and we can comprehend the challenges of their various circumstances. While her stories are rooted in her Nigerian background (she moved with her parents from Nigeria to the US at the age of 10) she addresses such issues as love, longing and betrayal, faith and doubt, and inner-family and inter-generational tensions and violence in such a way that they move beyond the specific and become stories of human struggle and survival. Yes, there is happiness too - fleeting moments that need to be savoured, hope for a future where it can establish itself...
Do I have favourites among the stories? Maybe I do, but each reader will find those that feel closer to home or that affect us individually more deeply than others. Fortunately, I don't have to choose. [Friederike Knabe]
Apparently, The Troubled Man, is Henning Mankell's last book in the Kurt Wallander series. Many of us will miss him as we got to like the often grumpy detective, who has had his own, very individual, ways of following suspects and investigating crime(s). This novel is not necessarily his best detective story, - but then I am not the one to judge, not being very knowledgeable in this genre - yet, in other ways, it makes for a very rewarding read. We learn more about the man, Wallander, who he was and what made him the man he is at sixty. We get to understand how he pursues his leads, even when the case is not really his to tackle. In this case there is a family connection that pulls him into the drama head-on. It becomes evident soon that the case will benefit from Wallander's experience and knowledge of Swedish history going back thirty years and more.
I found the context explored in the novel rather fascinating, having lived through those times in Europe. In fact, the story led me to recalling the rumours and innuendos about the much admired Prime Minister, Olof Palme, his policies, the arms business, and the Soviet submarines assumed to be in places where they shouldn't have been... and later the mystery of Palme's murder. All those events and more form the backdrop to the personal story and drama.
Finally, and movingly, Mankell gives his hero of many years the time to reflect on his life, his loves and losses... and to share his musings about age and whatever life is left for him. The author does that with great empathy and understanding and readers, not only of the older generation, will probably relate to these aspects in personal ways. Some themes may a bit drawn out and not all loose ends come together, but then, neither do they in life. [Friederike Knabe]
...laments the old fossil digger Abdellah,"...the desert is what we fish and the fossils are our fish...."
He, like many others living along the slopes of the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, eke out a meager living through digging, prepping and trading in fossils, "nightmare life forms from another geological era". Lawrence Osborne, experienced world traveler and writer, is familiar with the Moroccan landscapes and the local traditions. His novel draws on his deep knowledge and fascination with the place and his empathy with and understanding of the local people. In THE FORGIVEN he juxtaposes the precarious circumstances of the fossil diggers with the luxurious and carefree lifestyle of a group of the rich and famous, who revel in the delights of luxury hotels or private villas. Every year, Richard and Dally, the owners of a part-way glamorously restored 400-year old "ksour"(a walled-in cluster of villas, chalets, gardens and pools), invite a group of mainly Europeans friends and business associates to indulge in a feast of plenty with the best that money can buy, served diligently by local "servants". Feeling somewhat self-conscious about the wealth amidst all the poverty, Richard justifies the restoration of the ksour in that it provides employment of any number of young Moroccans and the influx of tourism is also good business for the fossil traders.
The contrasts between the two groups, is clearly what preoccupies the author and he elaborates the different aspects which reach from the economic to the cultural and language differences to the fundamental positions on religion, values and morality. The chasm between the world views of local Muslim population and that of the visitors is very explicit and comes across as irreconcilable.
The events of the novel play out against the backdrop of the festivities and overindulgence at the ksour and Osborne gives us more than enough intimate and intricate details. It is, however, one particular "incident" that epitomizes the underlying misunderstandings and mistrust between the two groups and that takes over the narrative. Two guests, Jo and David, have an accident late at night en route to the ksour: a young Moroccan man, who they feel, was about to rob them, runs towards the speeding car and is killed. Not knowing what to do they take the body with them to their hosts who, in communication with the local police, will, hopefully, sort out the mishap. But the "sorting out" develops very differently from what David and Jo anticipate. Driss, the young man is the son of the old fossil digger Abdellah who comes to claim the body...
Osborne describes the emotional tension between David, who in the locals's view may be regarded a murderer, and Abdellah, the grieving father, very poignantly: " Between the two men there existed a mental chasm - centuries of antagonism and mutual ignorance.... There was a much deeper misunderstanding between them, one that went so far back into the mind that the beginning could not be conceptualized." Will there be revenge or can there be forgiveness? The author imagines the exchanges and the pauses with sensitivity and empathy.
For me the hard positions of the Europeans and the Moroccans about each other come across as somewhat extreme and in danger of being stereotypical. Yet, the author, I assume, deliberately overdraws the contrasting perspectives to illustrate how far away the cultural positions are from any opening towards mutual respect and appreciation. To give some hope for a middle ground, Osborne introduces a couple of individuals as "interpreters": Anouar, a younger and linguistically skilled man accompanies Abdellah and David's encounters, while Hamid, the quiet, reserved and highly efficient manager of the ksour plays an important mediating role between the staff, the locals, Richard and the guests. [Friederike Knabe]