It’s a rainy Saturday afternoon, my husband is not around, and my book group just met this morning, so it seems like the perfect time to write a new post, even though it’s a day early. It’s supposed to be bright, but chilly, tomorrow, the kind of day when I enjoy getting outside, so I’m thankful for the rain this afternoon.
I read Jamie Ford’s new book last week, Songs of Willow Frost, which I plan to review for the local paper. If you recall, my book group read his first book, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, earlier this year. This novel plunges readers into Depression-era Seattle as seen through the eyes of a young boy who spends his days hoping to be reunited with his mother. Set in 1934, 12-year old William Eng, a young boy who has spent the last five years in Sacred Heart Orphanage among other lost children, dreams of the day his mother, Song Liu Eng, will return for him. Unsure if she is dead or alive, he almost can’t believe his luck when, on an outing to celebrate the orphanage boys’ collective “birthdays”, he sees a woman on the film screen that he is sure is his mother, despite the fact that she goes by the name of Willow Frost. Facing the stern treatment and racial discrimination at the orphanage along with other children, William and his friend Charlotte plan their escape to find Willow, who is appearing in an upcoming live show at one of the city’s theatres. Shift in time back to 1921, where we meet 16-year old Song Lui, the young daughter of an ailing Cantonese mother and domineering stepfather, who makes unwelcome advances towards his stepdaughter. Song Lui, who has a part-time job singing in front of the local music store, draws attention from the crowds with her lovely, haunting voice. When circumstances deliver her into an unwelcome situation, being an unwed Chinese mother, she relies on this job to keep body and soul together while she struggles to make a comfortable home for her son William, the only thing that makes her life worth living. She is forced to give William up, and we are given the opportunity to see how this decision changes both of their lives. This novel immerses readers in the social climate of the day and offers them the opportunity to experience the inequality and poverty that characterized the community during the 1920s and 1930s, particularly those visited on non-Caucasians. The author also details the history of theatre and film at that time. While this novel is sure to satisfy Ford fans, Songs of Willow Frost, like Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, seemed flat to me. I can’t explain why this is so. The story, setting and characters are interesting. The writing is good. But somehow I was unable to “feel” anything for the characters. It was a truly bittersweet tale, and all-too-believable, yet it failed to affect me. I think what my book club members said about Hotel was that it was not “gripping”, but that it was a “nice story”. I felt the same about this novel. Some elements stretched the imagination, but overall, it was an OK read. I would recommend it for book clubs, as well as for fans of Ford.
And we discussed Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson this morning. I had never read this novel before, but it was recommended by one of my members, so I included it. Set in the English countryside, in the village of Edgecomb St Mary, the main character is 67-year old Major Ernest Pettigrew, a widower who has just learned that his brother Bertie has died. He is devastated by this loss, and, while answering a knock at the door, he collapses in grief and is comforted by Mrs Ali, the village shopkeeper, from whom he has been purchasing milk and bread for years, but to whom he has never really spoken. He finds suddenly that they have much to talk about, and they are drawn into a furtive courtship that consists of Sunday afternoons discussing Kipling and walks in the park, accompanied by tea and conversation. This relationship is discouraged by the village, which is steeped in tradition, and by the Major’s son, Roger, who is only interested in making money and making the right connections in the business world. Not only is Mrs. Ali a woman of colour (although born in Britain, her family is originally from Pakistan); she is also a tradeperson, since she and her now-deceased husband purchased the shop in the village some years before. While the novel centres around this budding romance, it is not limited to this alone. It also explores the values of youth versus older adults, the differences in cultures, particularly Britain, Pakistan and America, and the needs of men and women in life and love. Of the five of us in the group, three loved it, while two did not. Those that loved it enjoyed the language and wit used by the author, and the humour of some of the situations. They felt that the novel was realistic and that the characters were interesting and varied. They felt that the Major’s ability to gradually let go of the traditions and accept change into his life reflected the experiences of older people realistically. Of the two who did not love it, one thought that the Major was too perfect, and not very realistic at al. She also felt that the situations all turned out just right, that it was a fairy tale where everyone got what they wanted and everyone lived “happily ever after”. I was the other of the two, and I felt that the novel touched on too many situations in too superficial a manner. I wondered if maybe it would have been a better reading experience for me if the author focused on fewer issues but did so with more depth. Having said that, upon reflection, I thought that perhaps this how we experience life, that injustices surround us every day but that it takes a crisis to force us to notice things, and then we notice everything all at once. It was definitely a good choice for the book club, and I would recommend it for anyone looking for a “feel good” read.
I think that’s all for today. I will have to choose another book to read now, definitely one for my committee, since I’ve been somewhat lax in that area recently. But which one to choose, Accusation by Catherine Bush or The Book of Stolen Tales by D J McIntosh? I know nothing about either one, just that they are both written by Canadian authors, so I’m very curious to try one and see how it goes. As always, I’ll let you know in my next post.
Bye for now…
PS You may have noticed that I changed my arrangement of book club lists on the right-hand side – I hope that will make things easier to find. I’m looking forward to tackling the books on the 2014 Book Club list, which includes what I think are some really great titles.