On this sunny, cool Sunday morning, as I sip my Chai tea, I am thinking about my reading and listening experiences over the past week.
I usually try to read one book each week, which I then write about here on the weekend. Last weekend I started reading Canadian novelist Heather Clark’s new novel, Elephant in the Sky. A couple of years ago I read and wrote about her first novel, Chai Tea Sunday (no mystery about why I had to read that title, is there?!), which told the story of Nicky, a young woman who, having recently miscarried and learned that she can never have children, leaves her marriage and her current life to accept a teaching position in Kenya. This assignment is both more difficult for her than she had anticipated, yet also more rewarding, and she is able to overcome her grief and once again find purpose in her life. It has been a couple of years since reading this title, but I remember enjoying it. Elephant in the Sky, on the other hand, has proven to be a different story. Alisha is a high-power advertising executive who struggles with the feeling that she is not spending enough time with her family. Her husband Pete works freelance and is a stay-at-home father for their two children, 13-year-old Grace and 9-year-old Nate. When Nate begins exhibiting bizarre behaviour, including paranoid delusions, Ashley’s struggle becomes more intense as she must choose between saving her family and saving her career (or this is how I suspect the story will go). Sounds like an interesting story, right? Unfortunately, this is not the case. Told in alternating chapters narrated by Nate and Ashley, I was at first excited to read the novel’s opening chapter, which reminded me of Mark Haddon’s excellent novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, narrated by a young boy with autism who decides to solve the mystery of “Who killed Wellington?”, as well as to find his mother, whom he was told had died, but whom he discovers is actually still alive and has been trying to keep in touch with him. Nate’s first chapter tells of the strange feeling he has in his stomach, like bubbles in his belly, and how he ultimately acts on his irresistible urge to go to the store and get gum, any colour, even though he has forgotten his money. He is clearly experiencing some form of childhood mental illness, but the reader is not sure what this illness is. Then Ashely has her turn to tell her story – her chapters include much product placement, including her red Prada laptop bag, and a “killer Dolce & Gabbana suit”, which put me off a bit, but I kept reading because I am interested in novels that explore mental illness. There were many instances when tears sprang to Ashley’s eyes as she encountered one and then another of Nate’s difficult situations, at home and at school, but by the halfway point, I had to set this book aside and pick up another that I hoped would be more interesting. This novel was just bland. It didn’t go anywhere. Where Chai Tea Sunday was a riotous, colourful African morning, Elephant in the Sky was a wet, grey, ceaselessly rainy day. I did try reading this for a full three days and half the book before closing it forever (or at least until someone who has read it to the end tells me it is worth sticking it out to the final page). The reason I stopped reading this book? It was a copy I was given to review for the local paper, and I knew that the only reason I would finish it would be to submit a review but that the review would be, if not outright negative, bland to the point of, well, pointlessness. This begs the question: Is it worthwhile to write bad reviews? Should reviewers only review “good” books? My response to these questions is that reading and book choice reflects an individual’s taste like almost nothing else that we do. It takes into account our reading history and life experiences, and so what appeals to me may not appeal to you, and vice versa. If I write a bad review, you may not expose yourself to that title, a book that you may have otherwise read and which may, in fact, have spoken to you. If I write a positive review of a book that appealed to me, on the other hand, you may pick it up and read it, and either like it or not, depending on your reading taste. So I guess I’m saying that I choose not to write negative reviews, because a) I am not obligated to review any particular titles, b) chances are if the book is not appealing to me, I wouldn’t even bother to finish it, and c) I do not want to deter anyone from reading a book, in case it will appeal to them, even if it did not appeal to me. I feel safe in writing about my negative reading experiences in my blog, though, since I am certain that far fewer people are reading this than read the reviews in the local paper, and also this blog reflects my own personal reading experiences, not really book reviews. WOW, that was a lot more than I thought I had to say about Elephant in the Sky! Anyway, halfway through the week, I started reading The Colonial Hotel by Jonathan Bennett, another Canadian author, which I am finding much more interesting. More on that novel when I finish it...
I am also nearly finished listening to Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartey, the first in the “Darko Dawson” series. This novel is set in Ghana, and features Detective Inspector Dawson, a good husband and father working in Accra who is assigned to help with a murder investigation in Ketanu, a village in the Volta region. Gladys Mensa, a young medical student who is trying to educate people about AIDS, is found murdered in the woods, and Dawson must fight the local police every step of the way as he struggles to uncover the secrets buried deep in the village’s community, a village where his mother disappeared nearly 30 years before. Dawson also learns of the Trokosi, women who were offered to the fetish priests to become their wives in order to bring good fortune on the families by the gods. Quartey introduces readers to West African traditions and superstitions still practiced in small villages, as well as to the changes and supposed progress that have taken over in the bigger cities. This novel was a treat to listen to, as it provided not only a great mystery, but also a lesson in the culturally diversity of Ghana. I highly recommend this title, and will try to find out if Quartey has written more in this series.
And I want to give you a (very short) list of books about royalty that I have read, in honour of Victoria Day:
Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert Massie, about the lives of the Romanov family in the last days of Imperial Russia (non-fiction, but reads like a novel - awesome!)
The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak, about the life of Catherine the Great as told from the point of view of her servant, Barbara (haven’t yet read this, but it is on my book club list for November)
Famous Last Words by Timothy Findley, which I thought was mostly about the abdication of King Edward VIII to marry American divorcée Wallis Simpson, but which is also about so much more (amazing book, and one of my favourites, which is probably due for re-reading)
This short list shows that I am not a reader of historical fiction or non-fiction, and that’s OK. I’ve had to justify this reading taste to people in the past, which I feel is unfair – as adults, we should be free to read whatever books suit us. I personally find historical fiction too descriptive, when really I am more interested in character or plot development.
I’m all “posted-out” or I would talk about the power of well-written prose as encountered in the Lee Valley flyer this week. Perhaps I will save that for next week’s post…
Happy Victoria Day weekend!
Bye for now…