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Good Literature for Children & Adults

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.

 

Erasing Memory by Scott Thornley


Erasing Memory, the first in the MacNeice Mystery series by Scott Thornley, was sitting in my “to read” pile for a year before I took it with me on a holiday this winter. My husband read it first, and liked it (like Mikey). And you will too. Some of this novel is set on Georgian Bay and we both noticed a particular scene set in a place that seemed very familiar to us - a place we thought we knew well.

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When I returned home I decided to find out if the scene I read about did take place where I suspected it did, so I contacted Scott Thornley. And yes, there is a scene set at the marina I have known for 27 years. I also discovered that the author used the same marina for many years, though we never met, we most likely crossed paths at the marina.

I think Scott Thornley has, wisely, played fast and loose with geography – the city where much of the action takes place is unmistakably Hamilton, Ontario – renamed Dundurn – but the rest of the book takes place at a beach house on a lake someplace in cottage country. As it turns out, our own bit of cottage country.

I would not ordinarily choose to read a mystery involving Eastern European politics and espionage but I was into this one before I realized what was behind the murder of a young musician. And by then it didn’t matter.

We first read about the murderer in a brief and chilling prologue. We then meet the detective, Detective Superintendent MacNeice, a man widowed for three years and still bereft. MacNeice is on his way home after visiting the grave of his late wife when he gets a call to attend the scene of a suspicious death. The victim is a talented and beautiful young musician, a recent graduate, ready to embark on what was expected to be a successful career as a violinist.

The murder took place at a beach house, on a lake not too far from the city where MacNeice lives and works. As the investigation unfolds we learn not only more about the young victim and her family but also about MacNeice and his team. I especially liked the female detective, Detective Inspector Fiza Aziz. There is a good working relationship between Aziz and her boss, and perhaps an attraction that I’m looking forward to following in the rest of the series.

The investigation, of course, involves everyone associated with the victim and her family. This murder may be a result of actions in the past involving Bulgarians and Romanians, very ruthless men indeed. Though the amount of violence and suspense made me a bit uncomfortable, it never lasts long before we are again following the trail that we hope will lead to the identity of the murderer, and the end of this particular investigation.

Then, on to the next MacNeice mystery, second in the series, Ambitious City.

Scott Thornley has accepted an invitation to return to Georgian Bay, so you can spend all summer reading this series, before meeting the author on Tuesday 10 September 2019 at Books & Beer at Trestle Brewing.

 

Henry, Himself by Stewart O’Nan


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What a delight it was to read Henry, Himself the third of Stewart O’Nan’s novels to feature the Maxwell family.

This time the story is told by Henry, now in his 75th year of life. Henry is long retired, a faithful and loving husband to his wife, Emily - well trained by now. Henry still adores his wife, and he is in every way a gentleman. Henry and Emily are the parents of Margaret and Kenny, now middle aged parents themselves. Henry was born and raised in Pittsburgh and lives there still, but the place most important to Henry and all of the family is their summer home at Chautauqua.

As the novel opens we learn about Henry’s early years, his ancestors and his own immediate family. Then, over the period of about a year we witness family gatherings and celebrations, with all of the concerns and worries, and joys and sadness that come with being a family, all shared by those Henry loves.

We also see the intimate workings of a long and satisfying marriage between partners who treat each other with respect and manage their differences with civility. We see the day to day little things that created a bond long ago, and have endured through all of these years. This is the unspoken intimacy of simply sharing a life.

When spring comes, there is work in the garden, tasks divided between Henry and Emily as they have been for decades. They do what they have always done, though the aches and pains that come with age are showing. After a long day of working in the garden, Henry and Emily, “both took some Aleve and went to bed early.” “Emily liked the fresh air, so they slept with the windows open. At four when he got up to pee, the room was freezing.” A battle Henry has long ago given up fighting. He goes into the bathroom and stands on the heated floor.

Spring also finds Henry and Emily making plans to open the cottage at Chautauqua. It is by now a ritual, a habit, doing things in the same way year after year. Opening the cottage comes after all of the preparation at home, the loading of the car, being sure not to feed the dog so that he will not be sick on the long drive. The stops along the way at familiar places, observing the changes, if any, on the route followed the same way every year.

Then their arrival. “Closed since Labor Day, the place smelled of must and mold, the air dank, as in a cave or basement, unpleasant yet familiar”.  “Upstairs Emily was opening windows. He went through the rear bedrooms doing the same”. They bring the heavy cooler in together, “Once he could have lifted it himself”. Henry looks after getting the pump going while Emily takes charge of the kitchen.

This is where Henry, and Emily, most belong. He wonders if his children feel the same, he wants them to, as he worries about the future. Then the long weekend, with children and grandchildren arriving. All the memories, and worries and sometimes conflict, spoken or unspoken. Days of activity, and then they are gone. Leaving only their parents worry behind. Often, Henry’s sister, Arlene will stay on, relaxing with Henry and Emily, sharing stories about their youth “without the children they could talk freely”. No secrets among such old friends, no matter that the children are now middle aged, fully adult.

There is so much in this novel about family and how we all behave with parents, and siblings and children. I was sorry to finish reading Henry, Himself and I immediately re-read the first two books in the trilogy, Wish You Were Here and Emily, Alone, enjoying them just as much as I did the first time around.

 

 

A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza

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On a recent holiday, with friends, I took along A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza. I’m afraid I spent more time reading than I did visiting until I had finished this truly exceptional novel. It is a novel that is so much more than the story it tells that I feel unable to describe it adequately.

The story begins with a wedding, eldest daughter Hadia, surrounded by her family and friends, looks only for her brother, Amar. He chose to leave his family some time earlier without any contact, but Hadia has asked him to come to her wedding, and he has come.

We then move back in time to the meeting of the parents, the arranged marriage, Rafiq and Layla. Then their move to the United States, to California and the beginning of their lives as young parents to Hadia, Amar and Huda. They live in a suburb of predominately immigrant, Muslim, families. They socialize with their neighbours, attend their mosque regularly and live their lives. They are observant of their religion, and except perhaps for Layla, assimilated into the culture of America. They are peaceful, good people.

Layla rules the home, whole heartedly loves and mothers her children and cares for her husband. Rafiq takes his role as breadwinner, father and husband very seriously, and demands not only to be listened to, but obeyed. Though he loves his children, and is proud of their accomplishments, he does not understand or tolerate the behavior of American teenagers – especially the behavior of his only son.

We see the gulf between father and son widen, with a father who cannot understand the sensitivity of his son, sees it only as weakness, and a son who seethes and withers. Though he loves his daughters Rafiq simply sees them as lovely girls, temporarily in his care, before becoming wives and mothers.

Hadia understands that in order to win her father’s favour she must achieve and please him. She is a smart girl, and studies Medicine – achieving the American Dream, becoming a well respected Doctor though she finds she has no passion for it. She is a confident and capable young woman, liberal in attitude and attire but still deeply committed to her religion.

A Place For Us reveals all of the joy and tragedy of a family. The joy of young children and parents when things are good and the world is full of optimism for the future. The complications of the teenage years, and the conflict of children and parents during this time when the young need independence and the parents need to protect. There is the tragedy of a young death and fear of the future. There are the secrets kept and revealed.

This novel gave me more of an understanding of the importance and influence of religious belief, and the challenges that face Muslim Americans, than anything else I have read, fiction or non-fiction. We are taken into the home, and into the private conversations, the conflicts and compassion shared by this family. The spoken and unspoken fear and distress after the tragedy of 9/11. The changes some choose to make and the challenges faced by all within a family and a community.

As we follow this family through one generation and into the next, we see the children grow, attempting to find their own place in the world. Hadia and Huda do so by pleasing, but for Amar this is just not possible. Amar’s conflict with his father results in estrangement, not only from his father but also from his mother and sisters – a great grief to them all and with such regret.

Much later we share the great pleasure Layla and Rafiq find in becoming grandparents. We also witness, along with this family the growing xenophobia in America. 

Will this wedding bring them together, or simply make it clear, once again, to Amar that he will never find peace within this family.

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