Archive for the ‘Canadian Book Challenge 8’ Category

A-Desperate-Fortune-300x456It has been a slow and lacklustre reading year for me so far.  April held a few gems (Caroline Moorehead’s biography of Iris Origo and Elizabeth Bard’s Picnic in Provence stand out) and June has been respectable but otherwise the year has been bleak.  I’ve read much-praised new releases and, much to my frustration, been unmoved by them all: The Evening Chorus by Helen Humphreys, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson…  I love all three authors and they all still write beautifully but these books just fell flat for me.

So what exactly have I been looking for?  A Desperate Fortune by Susanna Kearsley, as it turns out.

I first heard about Kearsley and her historical novels shortly after I started blogging but it wasn’t until 2012 that I first picked up her books for myself.  To be perfectly honest, there was still too much reliance on the supernatural (ghosts, inexplicable time travel, etc) for my rational self, but I loved Kearsley’s extraordinary attention to historical detail, her engaging writing style, her level-headed, competent heroines, her fascination with Jacobites…well, in the face of all that, a ghost or two was no great barrier.  I read The Firebird with great pleasure when it came out in 2013 (Jacobites!  In Russia!) and placed my library hold well ahead of A Desperate Fortune’s release this year, looking forward to learning about Jacobite supporters living in exile on the continent between the uprisings.  I expected to enjoy it but did not suspect it would immediately become my favourite of Kearsley’s books (supplanting The Shadowy Horses) and one of my favourite books of the year.

Like most of Kearsley’s books, the story alternates between a historical setting and a modern one.  But rather than being linked by the supernatural, the two eras are tied together here by a young woman’s diary.  Cue much rejoicing by this skeptical reader.  Our modern heroine, Sara Thomas, is an unemployed computer programmer with Asperger’s.  At the request of her cousin, she finds herself in France attempting to decode a young woman’s diary from the 18th Century for a social historian, who hopes the diary will contain details of everyday village life and help relaunch his career.  Instead, once Sara breaks the cipher, she discovers a breathless adventure featuring spies, assassins, pirates, royalty in exile, and, of course, romance.

While Sara is an admirable heroine (The Globe & Mail reviewer called her Kearsley’s “most endearing heroine to date”), I fell completely for Mary Dundas, the diarist.  Born to a French mother and a Jacobite father living in exile in France, Mary was raised by her aunt and uncle following her mother’s early death.  She has grown to adulthood with no contact at all from her father and elder brothers, developing into a smart, composed, loving, and very lonely woman.  When one of her brother appears and asks her to come live with him and his wife, it seems like the family she has yearned after for so many years has finally come back to claim her.  Instead, she soon finds herself living in Paris, helping to conceal a man wanted by the police.  When he is betrayed and they find their lives in danger, Mary flees to Rome with a motley crew: an accused thief, a monosyllabic Highlander, and a woman who knows more about Mary’s past than she does herself.

I loved this book so much.  The balance between the two eras is perfect and it says much about how appealing Sara is as a protagonist in her own right that I never felt frustrated when the narrative switched from Mary’s story to Sara’s.  Sara has her own journey to take, albeit a far less dangerous one, as she attempts to open herself up to new friends and the possibility of a relationship.  But it was Mary’s story that left me breathless at points – and not just from the thriller-like pace.  There is, let us be frank, a rather dishy love interest for Mary.  If you like your heroes protective, quiet, and kilted, have I found a book for you.

As soon as I finished reading, I wanted to start again.  And, really, I can’t think of any higher praise for a book.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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Laughing All the Way to the MosqueI had the perfect book for my daily commute last week, but for one thing: Laughing All the Way to the Mosque by Zarqa Nawaz had me laughing, out loud, all the way to work.  This was vaguely unsettling for my fellow commuters, but, aside from a slight fear that they would band together to force the crazy giggling woman off the bus, I couldn’t have cared less.  There is no better way to start – or end – your day than with a laugh and this book provides many of those.

Nawaz, a Canadian filmmaker, is most famous as the creator of the television series Little Mosque on the Prairie, a sitcom about the Muslim community in a quirky small town in Saskatchewan.  It attracted a lot of attention when it premiered and, reading Nawaz’s memoir, it is interesting to see how some of the show’s characters and episodes are inspired by her real-life events.

If you are looking for a serious, respectful observation of what it is like to be Muslim in Canada, this is not the book for you.  Nawaz is irreverent and slightly kooky and definitely talks herself into trouble more often than she needs to.  Which is what makes her so likeable and this book so entertaining.  For example, her great teenage act of rebellion was to become more religious and to begin wearing the hijab.  This was done partly out of religious feeling and partly, like any action taken by a teenager, out of the desire to outwit her parents:

…the best thing about the hijab was that I had discovered it on my own – my parents had nothing to do with it, which meant that I could beat them at their own game: religion.  I wanted so desperately to be different from them.  Hijab was the answer.  Some people think hijab is used to oppress people.  It’s true.  I used it to oppress my parents.

Nawaz fumbled her way through her B.Sc. undergrad, working diligently towards medical school.  When the med school rejection letter came, it prompted a rethink about her entire future – for both her and her parents.  Nawaz’s mother – who is portrayed as being just as spirited and quick-witted as her daughter, through a little more together – views it as opportunity to find her daughter a husband:

Her biggest fear for me was that too much education might result in old, dried-up ovaries.  Until the letter arrived, my father had squashed her matrimonial dreams for me, because he believed marriage was for women who failed to get into medical school.  I had officially become one of those females.

Nawaz is definitely not onboard with this idea, especially as she overhears unsettling conversations about one-eyed accountants.   She can’t understand why her mother is so determined to see her married.  Her mother’s answer to that, “because you’ll be lonely after I die”, is eminently sensible and true, but I can understand how a twenty-two year old might not see it that way.  Nawaz enrolls in journalism school instead of marrying immediately and, a few years later, ends up engineering her own marriage to Sami, then a medical student, now a child psychiatrist, and moving to the Prairies to be with him.

The years that follow are busy ones, filled with the births of four children and the start of Nawaz’s career as a filmmaker, first with low-budget short films, then documentaries, and finally Little Mosque on the Prairie.  But, thankfully since I’m not much interested in filmmaking, her career track is very much in the background here.  Instead, we hear about what it is like explaining to a Canadian contractor how a Muslim bathroom needs to be laid out or how a not-particularly-accomplished chef (Nawaz) finds herself cooking an Eid dinner for dozens of people.  One of my favourite chapters described Nawaz’s experiences on Hajj, when her father-in-law took all his children and children-in-law (grandchildren stayed home) on pilgrimage to Mecca.

Most of all, this book is funny.  It is full of hilarious dialogue, with all of Nawaz’s family members, particularly her mother and husband, portrayed as the long-suffering straight men to her unrelenting comedienne.  I laughed more than I have in months while reading it and I loved every page.


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