Friday, February 27, 2015

The Shepherd's Life by James Rebanks

ISBN: 978-0-385-68284-8

I'm a city boy. Very much so, in fact. I never went to camp when I was younger, I've never been all that fond of going camping or anything of that nature. So when I received a copy of James Rebanks'
The Shepherd's Life, I really didn't know what to expect. I've actually never thought twice about what it takes to be a shepherd. To be honest, I never really cared. Thankfully, I was taught many years ago to try everything at least once. I guess the more appropriate adage here is "Never judge a book by its cover" (especially given that it is an ARC with no cover art.)

The Shepherd's Life is unique. Rebanks explains his day-to-day routines in great detail, blood and guts sometimes included. He takes you into England's Lake District: an area that because of its natural beauty (and because of famous residents like William Wordsworth,) is swarmed by guide-wielding tourists as well as sheep on its fells.

Rebanks does a wonderful job telling the reader about not only herding, shearing, lambing, shopping, feeding and showing, but about his personal life and influences. He makes it abundantly clear that he would not be the man he is today if not for the guidance of his grandfather and the support--and sometimes tough love--of his father.

Growing up, Rebanks was not a good student. He explains that he didn't care about most of the things being taught in school. His mind was on the farm and on the subject matter he decided to focus on with the books he read (voraciously.) And so he failed his GCSEs (thus never graduating from high school.) He describes his life with his friends in the pub as being similar to the movie Good Will Hunting. He had all the tools to be a scholar but was very rough around the edges. He was a shepherd, after all! His wits did not go unnoticed, though, and in his early twenties he was persuaded to retake the GCSE and apply to university: more specifically Oxford. Any guess how that turned out? If you have seen Good Will Hunting, you already know.

This book is not about overcoming obstacles, although there are some. It's not a feel good story either. Its real purpose is just to let the reader know what it's like to live as a shepherd on a farm: something that most folks take for granted. As much as I now appreciate the difficulty, the hard work, the beauty of it all, the best part of the book to me is Rebanks' writing. There is a certain poetic feeling about it. Maybe it's in the landscape and that's what influenced Wordsworth, but it is not something you would expect coming from a farmer and I don't think it is something that can be taught--even at Oxford. Here he is explaining the end of winter:

"These are the days that winter shows it is passing: the creeping out of the daylight each day, the warmth of the sun increasing, the bite of the wind easing, the grass greening. But the ravens honking above the fells speak of carrion from worn-out ewes and the fieldfares flashing out of the hedges are reminders that winter still holds the far North. Foxes steal withered-up moles from the barbed wire where the mole-catcher has left them, telling of the hunger that once would have tested men here as well as animals. The carrion crows still lord it over the valley, cawing from the tops of thorn bushes or trees. We know that without warning winter can grab hold of the land again."

He makes something as macabre as carrion seem beautiful as only a poet could.

The Shepherd's Life is something that every city slicker should read. Take time out of your daily grind to learn what it's like on a farm from someone who can write about it introspectively and beautifully. Not that a shepherd's life isn't a daily grind: it is hard work, but you already knew that. I just know what I meant, right?

You can also follow James Rebanks on Twitter (@herdyshepherd1). He posts lovely photos of his sheep and gives you a better idea of how pretty the Lake District is.

The Shepherd's Life will be available on April 7th.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

More good news!

After hearing about Random House's great time over at this blog, Penguin Canada decided to join the party! I don't mean to sound like a fanboy or anything. After all, I will be giving unbiased reviews of the books that are sent my way.

But it's nice to have some support. For that, I am supremely grateful.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

An Ice-Cream War by William Boyd

ISBN: 978-0-140-06571-8

I thoroughly regret not reading anything written by William Boyd before this book. I feel as though I've deprived myself of something very good for a very long time. Of course, I have no idea if his other books are as enjoyable as this one. I know that his most popular is A Good Man in Africa and I will surely read it in the near future. Sorry for the sidebar before even getting into An Ice-Cream War, I just had to let you folks know that I've made a boo-boo.

This book is a visual, harrowing, somewhat satirical look at the First World War on its most ignored front: colonial East Africa. I can assure you, and maybe it's because my history teachers weren't great (they were--influences on my life,) that I had never even wondered about the colonies when it comes to WWI before now. When you think of The Great War, you think of France and Belgium, right? I'm sure it's not just me. There were also some pretty gruesome battles in German East Africa (now Tanzania) and British East Africa (Kenya.) The problem, though, was that the major intelligence of both sides were waging war with one another in Europe leaving this part of Africa in the hands of the B-Team (maybe even C-Team.)

The novel's primary focus is on the Cobb brothers, Felix and Gabriel: two almost polar opposites. Felix is at Oxford and has a bit of a superiority complex. Gabriel is in the military, stationed in India, at home in Kent for his wedding to Charis. Gabriel is a large man, all brawn, no brains according to Felix. War breaks out during Gabriel's honeymoon in France just as the awkwardness in his emotional and sexual relationship is subsiding. He is to report to British East Africa.

Felix, meanwhile, has no interest in the War and gets avoids it due to his poor eyesight, much to the chagrin of his father, a retired Major who is very visibly losing his mind.

Unfortunately for Gabriel, he is wounded and captured shortly after his arrival. Being the good soldier that he is, he decides to learn German and become a spy from inside the infirmary, prolonging his stay by re-infecting his wounds with dirt as they heal.

Back home in England, a distraught Felix and an even more distraught Charis begin a love affair: the captive Gabriel being the tie that binds them together. I always find it interesting when this kind of thing happens. Loss is something that can be only really remedied when you can share it with someone somehow. At least that's what I think.

The other arc in the novel involves a conflict between an American and a German who were once neighbours. Temple Smith is a prototypical capitalist: he has a sisal farm and he wants to branch out into coffee. With the help of his Decorticator (capital D,) he is on his way to making loads of money in British East Africa, just over the border.When the war breaks out, his once friendly neighbour, Erich von Bishop, takes over his farm and home with the promise that he will be able to reclaim it once the war is over. Of course, the most important thing to Smith is that Bishop or anyone else doesn't steal his Decorticator. From this, a personal vendetta is born.

I highly recommend this book. It is enthralling, somewhat gruesome and darkly funny. Boyd's characters are believable, sad and sometimes bumbling fools (you'll meet Wheech-Browning early in the novel and face palm as he pops up throughout--think stodgy British Inspector Clouseau.)

Really, really good.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Good news!

I am pleased to announce that Random House of Canada has been gracious enough to send over some Advance Reading Copies for me to review. This is a pretty big deal for me and I plan on getting started on them after tomorrow's book.

No more digging in the archives for a while! Not that I didn't enjoy finding old gems, but I'm sure we can all agree that unreleased material is pretty important to have.

Until tomorrow, all!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon

ISBN: 978-0-06-168757-0

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay wowed me when I read it. It was an interesting, genuine story that I felt was worthy of winning a major prize like the Pulitzer (it did--2001.) It was my introduction to Michael Chabon. I thought I had found a writer that I could rely on. Then I read Gentlemen of the Road and was thoroughly disappointed. In my opinion, it was boring.

But, because I loved Kav+Clay so much, I decided to give Chabon the benefit of the doubt and I bought this book. Unfortunately, I moved that week and it got lost in the shuffle (this was a good 6 years ago.)

I've since read and enjoyed Telegraph Avenue so I was excited when this one popped up. How couldn't I be: those are two quality books, right? GOTR was probably just an anomaly. 

No word of lie, I could barely get through the first 10 pages of this book. I must have had to reread it 3 times before finally trudging through.

Chabon was 24-years-old when he wrote this. It really seems like he is doing his best to impress. To say he comes off as pretentious is a bit generous. But, before you write this book off completely, let me just say that it does get better. Chabon does find a groove and is able to captivate as he is wont to do. But, geez, dude, where's the humility?

The book is your classic--if not unorthodox--coming-of-age story. Art Bechstein working at a bookstore after college, going about his days. His best friend Arthur had a best friend Cleveland and soon, they all become best friends. Art's father is a disapproving mobster (aren't they all?) whom Art is embarrassed of. Phlox is an acquaintance of Arthur's whom Art begins seeing casually before he falls in love with her. Cleveland is an alcoholic employed by the mob who is actually looking for trouble because nothing else in life gives him pleasure. 

Arthur happens to be gay and, early on, forecasts Art's venture into homosexuality after a thwarted come-on.

Art struggles with his sexuality, his life's purpose and his relationship with his father. It just seems more complicated for him than it does for everyone else. Don't get me wrong, I've had my fair share of issues. I guess they didn't all come and punch me in the face at the same time, though. Love is hard and life sucks (or vice versa,) we just hope that we can get by and we usually do, but that's because we aren't necessarily innondated with difficulties as is the protagonist's misfortune. 

It really seems like Chabon had to get over some jitters to write this book. I wouldn't call it a masterpiece by any means, but in the end, I liked it. I'd recommend it to anyone willing to put work in to get through the first couple of chapters. I'm more patient than I used to be--there's a chance I wouldn't have bothered with it a few years ago. Come to think of it, maybe I started it back before I moved. Whatever. I'm glad I read it and I'm glad Chabon continued working at his craft. He's good.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Children Act by Ian McEwan

ISBN: 978-0-345-80962-9

Ian McEwan is one of my favourite authors. He has the ability to take you into a scenario that he has illustrated and keep you rapt until the last page. He does follow a formula, however: one that he has perfected in the years that he has been writing. He is as descriptive as any writer--you will never feel as thoigh you missed something. In fact, you feel as though you are standing alongside the protagonist. You root for them and think everything is going their way. And then something happens. Like the Kaiser Sose moment in The Usual Suspects but not necessarily as extreme. As a faithful reader, you wait for this inevitable twist and wonder how he is going to close out his story and tie everything together into a neat little package shortly thereafter.

The Children Act is not unlike McEwan's other books. In fact, fans of the writer need not be told who penned the book: after the first few pages of highly intelligent storytelling, it is evident that it is, in fact, a McEwan. This story follows judge Fiona Maye through her days acting as a moral compass in family court and her evenings at home where her marriage is falling apart. If she did not have enough on her plate as it was, she was also a talented pianist and performed with a colleague of hers regularly.

McEwan is a liberal and lends his viewpoints to Maye. She rules over controversial cases: most notably the splitting of conjoined twins to save one's life and end the other's and the case that comes to the forefront of the novel.

Adam Henry is a Jehovah's Witness approaching his 18th birthday. He has leukemia that can be treated but only after a blood transfusion--which is prohibited in his religion. As a minor, the choice to refuse the transfusion lies in the hands of his parents who decide that if it is God's will to take their son, so be it. The hospital, knowing very well that the boy's life will be saved with the transfusion, does not accept the decision and brings the matter into Fiona Maye's court.

After hearing both sides of the story from the doctors and Adam's parents, Fiona will only make her decision after hearing from the boy himself. 

Adam is very much aware of the choice that was made for him and does not second-guess it. He is mature and intelligent but his faith carries the most weight in his life, perhaps because he has never known anything else. Maye's admiration of Adam adds to the difficulty of her decision: although she went in thinking that she would rule in favour of the transfusion, it's hard for her to force her opinion against the religious views of this very rational kid who is nearing the age of consent.

I'm not down with spoilers so that's all you're getting from me. There is a twist, obviously. It isn't the best one McEwan has given us, but it is certainly worth reading, preachiness aside.

I liked it but if you want the goods, you should definitely check out Enduring Love, Atonement or Amsterdam. Actually, read all of them--you won't be disappointed. Unless you are expecting Kaiser Sose which, after some consideration, may not be the best example of McEwan's twists.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Places In Between by Rory Stewart

ISBN: 978-0-14-305330-9

I remember sitting in a college English class a LONG time ago listening to my professor talk about the first known English novel: Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. He told us that because no one had ever read any fictional account before, people thought that the book was a travelogue. I had absolutely no interest in reading that book. I knew the basic premise already: man gets shipwrecked on island, happens upon local native he names Friday, tells us about his days, blah, blah, blah. Back then, I was stubborn. I didn't want to waste my time reading about real life (or in this case, what could be perceived as real life,) I had the newspaper and all of the classes I was taking for that. Now, at the ripe old age of 31, I see things differently. I don't mind learning a little while reading books; I don't have the same escapist mentality as I once did.

About 10 years ago, I read an article in The New Yorker about a British Conservative MP named Rory Stewart. The article was a profile of Stewart, from a prominent family, educated at Oxford. Like most well-to-do Scots, Stewart decided to walk across Asia. Pretty crazy thing to embark on, right? Especially when Afghanistan, just after the Taliban is expelled, is the last stop on your trip. The article mentioned the book he wrote about Afghanistan and I was immediately intrigued. I went out and bought the book and now, 10 years later, I've read it. I procrastinate, so what? Better late than never.

Upon embarking on his trek, Stewart decides that he is going to do it alone in the same footsteps as Babur, the great  Mughal Indian emperor of the 16th century. The journey begins in Herat and is set to end in Kabul. He began in January of 2002. I don't know if you realize how fresh the Taliban was at this point. They were ousted in November of 2001. That is a span of two months! One would have to imagine that as oppressive as they were, there were still some allegiances around the country and a British foreigner would not necessarily be welcomed with open arms.

Although he wished to travel on his own, he also had to have what where ostensibly letters of permission for travel to ensure his safety. He began by meeting with the then-governor of Herat, Ismail Khan and one of his officials. They granted him permission provided he would travel with several soldiers as escorts. Not wanting to insult the authority, he begrudgingly accepted (not that refusal was an option.)

He left with Qasim, Abdul Haq and Aziz. Qasim was a know-it-all who really didn't know much, Abdul Haq was a bit of a gun-toting maniac and Aziz, Qasim's cousin, was ill and not fit for travel, especially not by foot.

Stewart took everything with a grain of salt knowing that the soldiers would not continue with him past their governance. We see glimpses of his very dry sense of humour in his writing when describing Abdul Haq: "I was learning that Abdul Haq's rifle was his favorite possession, narrowly beating his hand grenades. I had watched him use it as a comic prop, a walking stick and a source of impromptu firework displays when he was bored."

After departing with Aziz, Qasim and finally Abdul Haq, he finds a new traveling partner in a mastiff he names Babur. Babur was a fighting dog and his ears and tail had been cut off. Dogs are seen as unclean animals and are not companions in Islam. They are mostly used in battles and for sport. Stewart is actually pleased about receiving Babur and plans to take him home to Scotland to give him a better life.

He projects a very light tone throughout the book which is interesting given its subject. He passes though villages filled with people who would never leave. They are extremely poor, have no education, and would never leave. The only thing that they know is Islam. Thanks to their customs, Stewart is welcomed as a traveller. 

Babur, however, is not. Stones are hurled at him, other dogs are sicked on him, but he remains loyal, if not a little reluctant, to his new master. While Stewart struggles through bouts of diarrhea and exhaustion, the old, creaky Babur gives him the motivation to continue.

It's a good read, chock full of history about a country and tribes that you will probably never learn about. I found Stewart to be likable for the most part. There were instances that I felt a small sense of entitlement when traveling in a strange land. It is definitely worth a go. So go do it.