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Good Literature for Children & Adults

The Birdwatcher by William Shaw

Readers of mystery novels will be aware that there are sometimes themes that appear – and the theme of this past summer seems to have been mysteries that involve a certain amount of bird watching.

Steve Burrows series has taken flight with the fourth in his Birder Murder Mystery series, A Shimmer of Hummingbirds, published this summer.

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And British writer William Shaw has departed from him series set in late 60s London and presented us with a great stand alone novel The Birdwatcher.

The New York Times has called William Shaw’s trilogy of detective books set it late sixties London “an elegy for an entire alienated generation.” Featuring DS Cathal Breen and the brash young constable Helen Tozer, they are set against the cultural and political revolution of the times.

The Birdwatcher however takes us to Ireland and the home of a young boy whose life is shattered by violence, and a generation later, to the rugged and peaceful Kentish coast where we meet Detective William South.

The novel begins with “There were two reasons why William South did not want to be on the murder team. The first was that it was October. The migrating birds had begun arriving on the coast. The second was that, though nobody knew, he was a murderer himself.” So, there! I was immediately hooked!

William South is forced to become involved in a murder investigation as the man who has been killed is his neighbor and fellow birdwatcher Bob Raynor. Both William and Bob are (were) solitary men. Both single men who seemed content with their lives, and both birdwatchers living on a remote bit of the coastline.

The murder was brutal and the police realize they are looking for an angry and aggressive killer. South’s boss, Detective Inspector Alexandra Cupidi is new to the detachment and in need of proving herself capable of managing the case – and solving it without delay. Her life is complicated by a teenage daughter who is also in need of her attention. William South is reluctantly drawn into all of this. The solitary life of privacy he had established for himself is in danger of being breached.

The story returns again and again to the past and William South’s experience growing up as a boy in Ireland in the days of murders and disappearances. Both the present day story and the past are equally absorbing and intriguing. The idea of combining the world of bird watching with the world of detective work, of course, is brilliant. The same skills are need in both pursuits – the birdwatcher and the detective must be quietly observant, patient, and alert. Ready to spot a bit of movement, able to be invisible to the subject of their surveillance.

The Birdwatcher was a book I could not put down once started – and I’ve just put William Shaw’s earlier books on the top of my “to read” pile.

Boundless – Tracing Land and Dream in a New Northwest Passage by Kathleen Winter

Like most people who read a lot I have a few of piles of books around the house. Some in the bedroom, some on my desk, some on a table in the family room. Some at home, some at the cottage. The books at the top of the pile change as something new is added and some never make it to the top of the pile and are ditched completely as time passes. Kathleen Winter’s book Boundless waited a long time in a pile – but surfaced recently in my Newfoundland pile – and it was just the right book at the right time earlier this summer.

Kathleen Winter, of course, is best known for her novel Annabel, a huge bestseller, the 2014 Canada Reads champion, and nominated for many awards nationally and internationally. 

Boundless is autobiography, an examination of the author’s past and present as she sets off on a journey into the Northwest Passage. Embarking from Greenland where the dogs outnumber the human residents, Kathleen Winter is one of several “guests” onboard a Russian cruise ship heading into the Northwest Passage. She leaves her day-to-day life as a writer, wife and mother behind in Montreal for the opportunity to see not only a remote and exceptional part of the world, but also a time to see herself as separate from the past that has come to identify her. Kathleen Winter took this trip during a year in which she passed a “milestone” birthday, finding it a shape-shifting, defining moment, an acceptance and rejection of the passing of time.

This trip took place before the discovery of Franklin’s lost ships, and Franklin expert Ken McGoogan was also one of the passengers. The mythic loss of Franklin, his men and his ships haunted the voyage and all of the passengers.

Part travelogue, part personal exposé Boundless is altogether a thoroughly fascinating book. During two long, and short, weeks Kathleen Winter experienced personal growth, found friendship and acceptance, patience and forgiveness, and her worldview would never be the same again.

There is high drama when the ship founders in the remote Arctic. Inuit lore and history are revealed by an on board historian, Bernadette Dean, who becomes a friend to Kathleen. From her we learn about Robert Peary who removed a meteorite from Greenland to New York City where it still resides in the Museum of Natural History, along with garments belonging to Bernadette’s ancestors.

And, a bit of breaking news for readers of this review – Kathleen Winter will be in Parry Sound with The International Festival of Authors on Thursday 26 October when she will introduce her forthcoming book Lost in September. I am presently reading an advance copy and finding it funny, captivating, completely eccentric and totally wonderful!  

 

 

 

 

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

I’ve been indulging in nostalgia – looking at family photos taken in Ghana in the early 1960s, and at images on Google of the visit by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in 1961 – an exciting event I vividly remember. If you get to be old enough you become part of history. All of this because the novel Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi has turned out to be the book of the summer 2017.

Recommended to me by my staff and many customers Homegoing is the story of the history of the Gold Coast, now Ghana, told by many voices, from the 1700s to the present day.

The novel begins in a village, somewhere near present day Kumasi, with the story of Effia, born in 1754. A British soldier comes to an Ashante village to buy a young girl as his bride. Though he has a wife in England, this young woman will be his life long companion in Africa. A not uncommon practice across the British Empire. He is stationed at the British Garrison at Cape Coast Castle where the slave trade is doing a thriving business.

 African entrepreneurs are working with the British to capture members of competing tribes, who are then held at Cape Coast Castle before being loaded on to ships bound for America.

My father tells me that we did visit Cape Coast Castle but I have no memory of this place that is now a major tourist destination. I do clearly remember spending holidays at Winniba beach and also visiting Takoradi, a port where there would sometimes be ships bringing such delicacies such as butter and bacon in tins from Denmark. Cape Coast Castle lies directly in between, so we would have been there quite often. Looking at the photographs, now and then, the beach is magnificent – and the last view of Africa for hundreds of thousands who were forced to leave as slaves.

Yaa Gyasi imagines each generation from the time of Effia to the present day, each one moving history forward with their own story, some in America and some in Africa. History is unfolded as each character’s story is told, some discovering that evil begets evil; others, that those who follow are not at fault for the actions of their ancestors, and that forgiveness comes before peace.

We come to understand through this novel and these characters the sense of displacement that many Black Americans feel even today - neither African nor American.

From the remote villages of the Gold Coast we travel to Harlem in the 1960s, when “in America the worst thing you could be is a black man”. There are sad stories of those who have fallen into lives of drug use and hopelessness, unable to find a place for themselves in the predominately white world of the United States of America – the only home they know. But, others through education find a safe and satisfying life for themselves and can help to make constructive change for others.

The final character, a young woman who I suspect is a thinly disguised Yaa Gyasi, travels to Ghana regularly to visit her grandmother and finally accepts that though she was born in Ghana she has been “too long gone from Ghana to be Ghanaian”.

As interesting as I found the long ago history told in this novel, it was the more recent time and the struggle of the black population in present day America that I found most poignant.

 

Midnight Blue by Simone Van Der Vlught

 

Journey to Amsterdam, 1654, invites Simone Van Der Vlught in her novel Midnight Blue.

The 1600s in the Netherlands were considered the Dutch Golden Age. The Dutch East Indian Company was trading with the Far East, importing fine porcelain and a wealth of exotic spices and foods – including coffee and tea.

The painter Rembrandt is well established in Amsterdam, where one of his pupils is Carel Fabritius. Fabritius established a studio in Delft, but is most well known for his painting The Goldfinch, now in the collection of the Mauritshuis in The Hague. In Delft he took on a student named Johannes Vermeer. All of these artists feature in one way and another in the novel.

At the centre of the story is Catrin Barentsdochter and Midnight Blue tells of her journey from a farm near the tiny village of De Rijp, near Alkmaar, where Catrin reluctantly marries a local farmer all the while longing for escape. The death of her husband precipitates the young widow’s flight, and she heads to Amsterdam looking for work. She acquires a job as the housekeeper to a wealthy family. Here she meets the brother of her employer and a love affair begins. The family is involved in trade with the Dutch East India Company, and before long Catrin finds herself alone again as her lover leaves on a ship, to be away for a year or more. Doubting his commitment to a future with her, Catrin leaves Amsterdam and finds work with another member of the family in a pottery in Delft. She is a talented painter and quickly becomes a valuable member of the studio.

At this time the blue and white porcelain imported from China is an expensive and very desirable luxury in the Netherlands. The potteries of Delft imitate the style but cannot find a way to achieve the beautiful clear white background. When the studio where Catrin works discovers the secret to achieving this white pottery and the deep midnight blue of the painting they are, in effect, producing much the same look as the Chinese porcelain – but of course it is much less expensive. The pottery trade in Delft flourishes – they begin to paint Dutch scenes, and the rest as they say “is history”.

Midnight Blue is both a love story and a fascinating portrait of life in 17th century Netherlands.

 

Reading for the new adult: Life lessons from Bukowski

Reading for the new adult: Life lessons from Bukowski

The following review is by Sarah Cassidy - a young woman who has worked at Parry Sound Books since she was a high school student. Now finished her first university degree, she is working while thinking about post-graduate education, and we are very pleased that she is still giving us a few hours a week at Parry Sound Books. Sarah has been reviewing books for young readers, but after reading Charles Bukowski for her own enjoyment she wrote this review. My generation read Bukowski when his writing was new - just another reminder that what goes around comes around, and sometimes what is old is new again for a new generation.

 

 

I am taking a brief sabbatical from my reviews of young readers’ literature, and as a parting thought I wanted to write something for different set of “young” readers: the twenty-something.

Literature that adequately conveys the tribulations of burgeoning adulthood is a treasure. Ironically, Bukowkski’s works into his 50s and on are what resonate most with me in my mid-twenties. To see someone whose life is less put together and successes still immense gives me hope despite my next-to-useless bachelor’s degree and mountains of student debt. I think other university graduates, whose next steps in life are uncertain, will feel the same.

Bukowski’s poetry reads like prose—stream-of-consciousness, fast-paced, and so beautiful it’s a wonder he’s writing of skid row LA. My favourite collection by far is You Get So Alone at Times that it Just Makes Sense. This collection reminds me to be brave in my new station as an adult. It tells me that I have more let-downs ahead, but that is ultimately okay. Those who have any money in the bank, a person to love, or even a home will find new appreciation for these blessings next to Bukowksi’s contented rock bottom existence.

Another favourite from Bukowski is Ham on Rye. Anyone who enjoyed Bret Easton Ellis, Catcher in the Rye, or Lullabies for Little Criminals is sure to revel in Ham on Rye. It is the story of scrappy, antisocial Henry Chinaski as he transitions from young boy to young man. How such an ugly story, ugly protagonist, and ugly setting can comprise such a stunning novel is beyond me—only in such gifted hands as Bukowski’s could this be achieved. Henry is certainly an anti-hero who at no point manages a victory. Once again, such demoralizing plotlines become uplifting to the young adult reader: we are not alone in stumbling to get off the ground. I won’t say more on what Ham on Rye is about; myself, I like to start my own reading journeys rather than having them started for me, and plotlines are yours to discover.

Taking on Bukowski is taking a leap of faith that you will find beauty in the beast. I wouldn’t recommend it as literature or to anyone settled in to a comfortable life. Bukowski is for my young compatriots who don’t know where life is headed or, frankly, if it will get better. But because my life is already better than Henry Chinaski’s, I found a warm solace in Bukowski’s work. I think you will too.

 

 

 

 

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