Half-Blood Blues

Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues is one of the most interesting books I have read in a long time.  It’s an original and educational read. Seen through the eyes of Sidney Griffiths who recounts what happened to his group of friends and fellow musicians in Hitler’s Berlin in 1939 on the brink of the Second World War.

He and his buddies are jazz musicians and Sid is conflicted by his petty jealousy of Hieronymus, the 20-year-old brilliant trumpet player, who also happens to be black and German. Fifty years have gone by when an old friend contacts Sid and says he has found Hiero who neither of them have seen since the day he was arrested in Paris. The Nazi’s were storming the streets of Paris and arrested the young black German; the others never knew his fate. Edugyan introduces the reader to a little known world. I highly recommend this book if you have not read it already.

The Sisters Brothers

You don’t have to like Westerns to love The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt. The book took first place in both the Rogers Writer’s Trust and the Governor-Generals Awards this past fall and was nominated for Britain’s Man Booker Prize as well.

Eli and Charlie Sisters are notorious guns for hire and their latest job sends them from Oregon to California during the height of the Gold Rush.

Eli is tender at heart but Charlie will shoot a man just for looking at him the wrong way. Eli, as the thoughtful narrator, lets the reader know he is questioning his livelihood but sibling loyalty keeps him in the game with his brother.Charlie is a psychopath with a taste for alcohol and the matter of fact story he recounts to Eli about how their father died will both shock and amaze.

You shouldn’t like these two but you cannot help laugh at the interactions the men have with the unfortunate individuals that cross their paths. The tenderness Eli shows to his horse and the occasional stranger is often offset by the violent behaviour of Charlie. There is nothing predictable in this book.DeWitt has written an original, funny, interesting book that once you begin to read you won’t be able to stop.

The Flying Troutmans

Hattie has just been dumped by her boyfriend in Paris when she gets a call from her upset 11-year-old niece, something about her mother, Hattie’s sister, acting crazy again. Hattle jumps the first plane home to Canada to find her sister is on her way to a psych hospital and noone but her are around to look after her sister Min’s two kids. Not really knowing what to do, Hattie takes the kids, and decides to go on a road trip to find Logan and Thebes father who left years ago. Driving around with two kids, when you know nothing about kids and one of them is 15, (that’s Logan) is not the easiest task. The kids are a bit messed up, having had to deal with their mother’s on and off again illness. Thebes is a kooky kid but really, really loveable. Logan, it’s hard to tell, well because he is a quiet teenager.

Toews is a great storyteller. She knows how to balance responsibility, family guilt and personal choice without any judgement. This 274 page book was a quick read and in spite of that, I wish it had taken longer to read.

Irma Voth

Irma Voth is a strong character but I felt sorry for her throughout the entire book. Not only does her crappy husband leave her on their farm in Mexico to pursue drug-trafficking, her domineering father, head of their Mennonite family makes sure she feels like crap most of the time. Irma’s strength should do more than just help her withstand the hard times that come her way. Her father by the way, is a coward. He and the rest of the family hide behind a wall of secrecy that is responsible for tearing the family apart. Despite the fundamentalist oppression that Irma is pushing against there is a some hope for Irma, even if it is not easy to believe.

Miriam Toews the author of Irma Voth, has written a few titles where  the main characters hail from Mennonite communities. This book was stemmed from her experience as an actress in a film called Silent Night, about a group of Mennonites in a community in Mexico. Apparently she only agreed to do the movie because it would give her something interesting to write about. Good decision Miriam.

The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary

Books I read are generally fiction, in fact I love nothing more than a big fat “made up” novel. The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary: A Story of Resilience and Recovery is not that. It is the 2012 winner of the Charles Taylor Literary Non-Fiction Award and deservedly so. Andrew Westoll’s writing draws the reader in on page one and the book is  impossible to put down after that.

As the title states, the book is about a chimpanzee sanctuary located in Quebec where retired laboratory chimps are taken, looked after, and given a place to recover and learn to trust humans again. Westoll volunteers at the sanctuary for three months and writes about his experience. It is hearbreaking and heartwarming at the same time. If you have never give non-fiction a chance this is the book to start with. Westoll is a fantastic writer and I hope to see more from him.

Published by HarperCollins

Tell It To The Trees

Tell It To The Trees by Anita Rau Badami

Tell it to the Trees opens with the death of Anu, a single woman who rents the “back house” of the Dharma family. It is the middle of winter in northern British Columbia and Anu is found frozen in the snow outside. The Dharma children watch the police investigate the scene from inside their warm kitchen.
Anu had come from Vancouver to spend time away from it all and  to write. She found the tranquility of the interior energizing. She tries to strike up a friendship with Suman Dharma, the second wife of the patriarch in the family. Suman brings Anu a delicious lunch every day, and both women look forward to the visit that breaks up the day. But Anu suspects things are not altogether happy inside the family home. When she questions Anu about it, a strain is put on the thin friendship.

Using shifting narrators, Badami shows the story of this troubled family. Varsha, who lost her mother at a young age, clings to Suman, terrified that she will lose her step-mother as well. Varsha, is a frightened but scary control freak and goes so far as to hide Suman’s passport, knowing that she cannot leave without it.

Hemant, the little brother,  listens to everything Varsha, his older half-sister, says and is controlled by her. Her thoughts about what is going on around her push the plot of the story. When bad things happen the children have been told to tell it to the trees. The story is heartbreaking and the isolation of an small town winter landscape mirrors the isolation some immigrant women face with no recourse to change it. The story is subtle but the book once begun is hard to put down.

Three Thieves – Book Two The Sign of the Black Rock


The *second book in the Three Thieves series The Sign of the Black Rock continues the adventure as our three heros widen their search for Greyfalcon and hopefully, Dessa’s brother.
Dessa, Topper and Fisk spend the night taking shelter in a village inn to escape a terrible storm only to come uncomfortably close to Captain Drake their pursuer. The smarmy innkeeper Mortimer Grig, captures the trio, and plots to get as much reward money for them as he can before the Queen’s Dragons, lead by Captain Drake, can uncover his wine smuggling operation. The ill-treated wife of Grig, Eudora, discovers she and Dessa have an unusual connection and lends a hand in their escape.

Scott Chantler’s drawings and colouring in the story are vivid and playful.

“I’m more content with the second book than the first,” Chantler said on his website. I am too. I agree this story is complete in itself yet keeps you interested enough to see where the friends end up next. It’s so well done you will be drawn in by the first page and won’t stir until you reach the last.

Three Thieves Book Two The Sign of the Black Rock. Scott Chantler. Kids Can Press. Toronto ISBN978-1-55453-416-6

*Three Thieves Book One Tower of Treasure reviewed Oct. 27, 2011.

Two Generals

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The army issued bicycles - Two Generals p. 46

Keep Calm and Carry On. Words to live by then and now. It was a popular mantra during WWll and could be found on postcards and bulletins all over Britain. The Two Generals begins with that mantra. The book is based on the true story of Law Chantler of Newmarket, Ont. and his buddy Jack Chrysler of Galt, Ont. who both enlisted in the Canadian army in the Second World War. Written and drawn by Scott Chantler, this graphic novel is a labour of love, Law was Chantler’s grandfather. The title comes from a note jotted on the back of a photograph of the two men, Law sent to his wife: “Just an informal shot of the two generals.”

Chantler and Chrysler would find themselves on the shores of Normandy in one of the most important battles of the war. From Law soaking in a metal washtub with nothing but his helmet on, to the bull-handled one geared bicycles issued to the men as official equipment Chantler’s beautifully drawn pages bring the army, training and the battles to life. The panels are coloured in an olive green with splashes of red where appropriate. I won’t spoil it for you, read it yourself.

They were good men Law and Jack, naive as all the men were. How were they to know the grimness of a war. They joined because it was the right thing to do. One comes home and one does not. Everyone should read this graphic novel, especially with Remembrance Day on the horizon. Simple men did great things, they should not be forgotten.

Two Generals. Scott Chantler. McClelland & Stewart, 2010. ISBN 978-0-7710-1958-6

Three Thieves – Book One Tower of Treasure

You may know Scott Chantler through his graphic novel Two Generals which was nominated for a 2011 Will Eisner Comic Industry Award. Chantler is the author of the graphic novel series Three Thieves Book One in the series is Tower of Treasure. It won the Joe Shuster Award, 2011 for the Best Comics for Kids category.Tower of Treasure features acrobat 14-year-old Dessa, Topper, a juggler and strongman Fisk, performers with a traveling circus. When the group arrives in Kingsbridge, Topper sees an opportunity to solidify his reputation as the greatest thief in the land by cooking up a plan to rob the Queen. All the land’s gold is stored in the highest tower and rumour has it that it is protected by a dragon.

The sub-plot of the story is Dessa’s search for her missing twin brother who was kidnapped by a mysterious man when they were just small children. She thinks she may have recognized Maarten Greyfalcon, one of the Queen’s men, as the man who snatched her brother. The thieves break in to the tower, are caught, put in prison, and manage to escape but not before Dessa searches Greyfalcon’s rooms looking for information about her brother. It was a very busy night. The Queen’s Captain is sent out after the escapees and told not to come back unless it’s with their heads.

Great story. It has castles, a travelling circus, gold, dragons and a strong female lead. Awesome. Chantler, who lives in nearby Kitchener, Ont., wrote and illustrated this book and there are at least two more on the way. Pick it up for yourself or give it to your favourite kid under 14 years of age. I’m looking forward to keeping up with the adventure in Book Two The Sign of the Black Rock, which just came out in September, 2011.

Three Thieves Book One Tower of Treasure, Kids Can Press, Toronto ISBN 978-1-55453-415-9 (pbk.)

Cities of Refuge

A complicated story about a woman who is violently assaulted and how that impacts her life and the lives of those closest to her. Michael Helm, writer and instructor at York University in Toronto, weaves an intense story that focuses on the relationship between Kim and her father Harold, who abandoned the family when she was a child. Both are tormented by the attack yet in extremely different ways.

Harold is convinced that Kim’s work with refugees who have been denied the right to stay in Canada on compassionate or humanitarian grounds is entwined with the assault. He investigates his hunches to the chagrin of those around him and it brings him head to head with some whose faith based belief is to provide refuge to all regardless of their sins. Kim tries to make sense out of what has happened to her by writing down the story over and over again.

Perhaps the story is not so much complicated as the writing is poetic and often leaves images hanging between the pages that interferes with the flow of the narrative. However, this is part of what makes the prose so interesting and compels the reader to stay up late at night reading it.

From the book jacket…”Cities of Refuge is a novel of profound moral tension and luminous prose. It weaves a web of incrimination and inquiry, where mysteries live within mysteries, and stories within stories, …” Indeed.

Cities of Refuge. McClelland and Stewart Ltd. Hardcover ISBN – 13:978-0-7710-4039-9.