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Our Homesick Songs by Emma Hooper


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It is a Monday, my wash is on the line hanging between the fishing shed and the outhouse. From my kitchen windows I look out to the ocean and into the harbour. This was once a harbour where hundreds of people lived, the shore lined with fishing stages so close together the children ran from one to the other across the whole cove. Now it is a place where only six families live year round, the rest of us coming from away, or from nearby towns back to the houses where their parents once lived.

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There are many, many places like this in Newfoundland. And there are just as many like Little Running and Big Running, where Emma Hooper has set her novel Our Homesick Songs. Once both were busy communities where families supported themselves by fishing and related work. In the 1970s the few houses still occupied in Little Running were floated around the shore to Big Running.

People adjusted – not so very far from home. But by the 1990s it was clear that even the once busy harbour, and the fishery, was no longer able to support those who remained. The novel then moves seamlessly from 1969 to 1993, as we come to know the orphaned Murphy sisters, especially Martha, and the man she will marry, Aidan Connor, and then their children Finn who is 11, and Cora 15 years old. They live now in Big Running, and will be the last to remain after all of their neighbours leave, family by family, to find work elsewhere, many in Alberta.

Martha and Aidan know they must find work in the west as well, but they chose to do it alone, one going for several weeks, and the other staying home, and then the reverse. This means the children are always with one parent and still in the home they all love so much. What is not so good is that Aidan and Martha are not together, and without any other children in Big Running there is no longer a school. They are living in what has become a ghost town.

Finn and Cora each find different ways of coping with their situation – as do their parents. When the notice comes to advise the remaining residents that they must leave each member of this family has their own idea of how to prevent this from happening. And they each place themselves, and those they love in potentially dangerous situations.

I was immediately drawn into this story, with characters who felt very real, and a time and place into which I was emotionally drawn. This is a novel that is both absolutely straight forward and one that is sometimes slightly too “quirky” for my liking. About three quarters the way through I was becoming impatient with some of the less than believable events, but by then I was so committed to the characters that I had to keep with it. And, it is a book that became better and better as the story developed. I felt fear for the children, both of them in situations where they could so easily come to harm or perished. The demise of a once vibrant community becoming emptier and emptier was heartbreaking, as were the struggles of the parents trying to do the right thing for themselves and their children.

Young Finn is taught to play the accordion by Mrs. Callaghan, the only remaining resident in Little Running. He rows across to her home and she tells him stories, about the sailors and explorers from far off places who once sailed to Newfoundland, and some who stayed. It is Mrs. Callaghan who explains, “the only way, the best way, for them to remember home was through singing, through the songs and tunes they knew from home. When they were homesick, when they needed to remember where they were from, they could sing to see, to remember.” Singing and music is a big part of life in Newfoundland, the heritage from those long ago sailors and settlers from Ireland, and the British Isles, France, Spain and Portugal - it is in the blood here – and in the blood of those who have had to leave.

Emma Hooper is not only a novelist but also a musician, a Canadian living in Ireland. It may have been the music that drew her to this place, but time spent in Newfoundland led to write her most recent, and quite wonderful novel, Our Homesick Songs.

 

Ambitious City by Scott Thornley

Many, many years ago my husband and I lived on the Niagara escarpment, in an old farmhouse in the middle of nowhere – at the bend in the road outside Caistorville. Not too far from Cayuga where some of the action in Scott Thornley’s second MacNeice mystery novel, Ambitious City, takes place.

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This time the city of Dundurn – a fictionalized version of Hamilton, Ontario – is at the centre of the story. The mayor has a plan to revitalize the waterfront and bring tourists to his city. I remember Hamilton as place that we drove past as quickly as possible – over the terrifying old Skyway Bridge, or sometimes on a windy day along the beach road.

It is not long before there is mention of Georgian Bay as MacNeice remembers happy times spent there with his wife, before her death. But for now we stay in the city, and the surrounding area, up onto the escarpment – and eventually to a house full of bikers that I feel I knew (less the bikers) so many years ago. 

The investigation begins when the mayor calls MacNeice to come look at a car that has been found in the harbour – a car with a body or two in the trunk. There is a team in the harbour working on the recovery of ships from the War of 1812 – part of the mayor’s plan to attract tourists – and this is the last thing he needs. These bodies, in the trunk of a 1935 Packard are not recent – but they are somebody. When more, more recent, bodies are discovered there is truly a need to investigate.

MacNeice is already more than busy after the murder of a young woman, a knife attack in a city park. The two investigations are progressing in tandem, and the team is stretched to work on both at the same time. Though MacNeice now has the help of a young computer whiz kid, Ryan, a sort of a nerdy male version of Donna Leon’s Elettra, who becomes a valuable member of the investigative team.

Both investigations are complicated, and dangerous. Sometimes the description of the conflict is a little too brutal for my tastes, but such a good book. Now, on to the 3rd in the series, Raw Bone

Read one of the MacNeice Mystery novels, and you’ll read them all. Then you can come to Books & Beer with Scott Thornley on Tuesday 10 September 2019 at Trestle Brewing and meet the author of this terrific mystery series.

The Limits of the World by Jennifer Acker


Sometimes while reading a novel you fall in love with the characters and wish the book would not end and leave you wondering, “what happened next?” This was the case for me with The Limits of the World by Jennifer Acker.

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This novel tells the story of a family, East Indian immigrants from Africa, living in the United States. There was not one of them that I did not come to care about. I have always been fascinated by stories about people who have left the country where they were born, to come to a new place looking for opportunity, or peace, and have made it home. These are people who have been displaced, but bring their culture with them – more or less – as they become part of the new world they have chosen, or come to by happenstance.

Many Asians went to British East Africa, originally as labourers to lay the railway. Many stayed on and became successful shopkeepers. But, during times of political unrest many left, most emigrating to Great Britain or the United States. The Chandaria family is divided between those who stayed, and those who left for opportunity in the United States.

The American Chandaria family consists of the father, Premchand, a doctor, his wife Urmila and their son, Sunil. The doctor has a busy medical practice, the mother a shop selling items imported from Africa, and Sunil studying at Harvard.

We soon learn that Urmila is dissatisfied with her life – and her husband and son. Sunil, now 30 years old, is struggling to complete his PhD thesis, while living with his girlfriend. Though he is away from his mother’s watchful eye he is very much conscious of her disapproval.

Before too long, we discover that there is another son, Bimal, raised in Nairobi by Urmila’s sister. Sunil has known this brother as a beloved cousin, but it is not until Bimal is in hospital, seriously injured, and all of the family is together, that the truth is revealed.

It seems that Sunil is most at the heart of this novel. We witness his struggles at Harvard, his love for Amy, his white, American, Jewish girlfriend, and his need for his parent’s love, approval, and acceptance. Amy truly loves Sunil, and they are determined to make their relationship work in spite of the fact that all of the parents wish their children had chosen a partner of their own kind.

As readers, the thoughts of the characters, and the things they do not say to each other are revealed to us. The words we wish they would say - the words that would heal a wound, or express forgiveness or understanding or love. But that is life, reflected in art, and I found this novel very much a story of what love brings to us all – regardless of creed or race. There is tragedy and joy – love and hate – mistakes and reconciliation. A truly wonderful book – The Limits of the World by Jennifer Acker.

The Waiting Hours by Shandi Mitchell


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I first met Shandi Mitchell the year after her first novel, Under This Unbroken Sky, was published in 2009. She accepted my invitation to read from her work in Parry Sound. I spent time with her driving between Parry Sound and the airport, and she stayed the night with me, sharing stories that quickly became intimate as sometimes happens when two people feel immediately understood.

Under This Unbroken Sky won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Novel, among others, and was longlisted for the very prestigious IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. I truly loved this novel – you can read a review on our website – and all of my staff, and our customers, over the past ten years have agreed it is one of the best books they have ever read.

Shandi Mitchell is both an author and a filmmaker. Her award winning films have been featured in festivals across North America.

We have been waiting for a good long time for a new novel from Shandi Mitchell. And now we have it, The Waiting Hours.

I can only say, as I opened this book, I hoped I would like The Waiting Hours as much as I liked Under This Unbroken Sky. And I did. It is not often that one reads a novel that is both a completely absorbing story – from the first page – but also one with breathtaking prose, words so perfectly pitched that the reader is swept away from any concern except for that of the characters created by a master storyteller.

 The Waiting Hours is a story of people working on the front lines of contemporary society. Tamara, a 911 operator; Mike, a policeman; Kate, an emergency room nurse; and into this mix, Hassan, a taxi driver. They are all working at dangerous, intense and stressful jobs – and they all have their own story. There is the strain on a marriage, there is the childhood damage still determining the behavior of adults, there is grief. These are people expected to do their jobs without becoming involved in the lives of those who are victims or survivors of accident or attack. They are expected to be able to go home and make a life. I for one wonder how it is at all possible.

“Night shift clocked drug busts, prostitution, robberies, public intoxication, mentally unstables, and the regulars, dubbed the Lonelies. Once the bars closed, assaults rose, followed by a sharp spike in domestics, and an hour after that the DUIs, these ones often the most lethal and catastrophic – yet rarely fatal for the drunk drivers. Midnight to three brought kitchen fires, overdoes, and the attempted and achieved suicides. And finally, between the twilight of three and six, came the Waiting Hours.

 These are the longest hours, when everyone hopes there wouldn’t be a call because a call then would mean something had gone very bad. If the phone didn’t ring, it meant people were just living their lives.”

 You know you need to read The Waiting Hours by Shandi Mitchell.

 

 

The Red Daughter by John Burnham Schwartz

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1967 – the year we celebrated ourselves in Canada with Expo ’67 – and the year that Svetlana Stalin – known as Svetlana Alliluyeva – defected from the Soviet Union to the United States of America. Those of us who are old enough to remember these events will recall that time as we read the Red Daughter by John Burnham Schwartz.

John Burnham Schwartz has written a captivating novel based on the life of this fascinating woman. We meet her first on board a Swiss Air flight from Zurich to Kennedy Airport in New York City. She is accompanied by a young American, they travel in first class luxury, as Mr and Mrs Staehelin. But, we will come to know her as Lana Evans for most of the novel.

Though the author is very well familiar with the true life of his subject he has taken the liberty of a novelist and played fast and loose with much of the story. Since I knew next to nothing about Svetlana, it was not until I finished the novel and did a little research into her life that I discovered what was fact and what was fiction. If you are not bothered by the fictionalization of such a well known person I trust you will enjoy this novel as much as I did.

Svetlana’s life in the Soviet Union, as the only daughter of Joseph Stalin was not an easy one – nor was the life she came to in the United States easy. She was forever the daughter of one of the world’s most reviled dictators.

Her life was tumultuous and makes for a great read. The constant in the novel is her connection to the man who was Mr. Staehelin, her lawyer and faithful friend, Peter Horvath. The point of view seamlessly alternates between Lana and Peter, as we move forward from their arrival in the United States through the rest of their lives.

Lana Evans was both dependent and fiercely independent – she lived on both coasts, and in the mid-west, for a period of time on the estate of Taliesin West in Arizona, with the widow of Frank Lloyd Wright. A time during which she found love, and became more and more American, though she missed the children she left behind in the Soviet Union.

Svetlana went on to live in England, and again in the Soviet Union, years that are documented in the novel. This woman’s life was truly fascinating as is the afterword where the author reveals his own connection to the story.

 

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