What I Read – November 2017

The Lifters – Dave Eggers (Alfred A. Knopf, 2018)

Wonder – R.J. Palacio (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012)

Beloved – Toni Morrison (Plume, 1998)

My Cousin Rachel – Daphne Du Maurier (International Collectors Library, 1952)

Currently Reading:

See What Can Be Done – Lorrie Moore

Rest, Play, Grow – Deborah MacNamara

The Turn of the Screw and other short novels – Henry James

Next Year for Sure – Zoey Leigh Peterson

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Book Review: Wonder by R.J. Palacio

Wonder – R.J. Palacio

I read Wonder and The Lifters back to back and so it’s hard not to compare them in my mind. While they are two very different books, they are geared toward the same age. The key difference that stands out to me in this regard though is that while The Lifters has an appeal likely limited to its intended audience, Wonder is a book that appeals to a broad spectrum of readers.

Wonder is an excellently written and compelling novel. While it’s written for a middle school aged audience, it kept me interested and eager to read more. The story focuses on Auggie, a fifth grader entering school for the first time after years of being homeschooled. Auggie was born with severe health issues, which have caused him to have some extreme facial deformities. He’s never interacted much with other kids; he’s a smart kid but knows he’s behind in the social sphere.

The novel moves between several different characters’ voices, some more closely connected to Auggie than others, and Palacio excels at capturing a variety of voices and perspectives. This enables the reader to get a pretty accurate and honest view of who Auggie is and how he appears to others. It also offers a very honest view of family life – both good and bad. We see how various families deal with life and their issues, how no family is quite perfect, how some families have quiet struggles below the surface. There is a lot of empathy here for how people end up being who they are.

I really appreciated how there’s no bad guy to this story. While there is one kid who sets himself up against Auggie and there is a somewhat dramatic showdown with some strangers at the end of the story, this isn’t a story about good and bad or overcoming evil. At the end of it all, Auggie still looks the same but he’s learnt a lot about life and so have some of the people around him. It’s realistic in the best possible way.

Book Review: The Lifters by Dave Eggers

The Lifters – Dave Eggers (Alfred A. Knopf, 2018)

I received an Advanced Readers Copy of this book, which will be released March 27, 2018.

Being a moderate fan of Dave Eggers I either avoid nor search out his work. I find him to be guilty of over-writing, which made me more curious how his style might translate to a book for young readers. (The intended audience here would be about ages 8-12.)

Gran (short for Granite, which is his name for some reason) and his family have just moved to the town of Carousel, a falling apart, hilly place, prone to sinkholes. The move isn’t a great one for his family and problems quickly arise. Gran starts a new school where he finds himself effectively invisible. As in, no one, including teachers, talks to him, He eventually makes a couple of friends, one being a man called The Duke who is maybe a janitor at the school? (I was never clear on whether or not his presence in the school was legitimate.) Gran also befriends a girl named Catalina who seems to have a secret. When Gran follows her one day he sees her disappear into the side of a hill and he begins to learn more of the history of Carousel.

The ideas and the plot in The Lifters are creative and unique and the novel touches gently on some larger ideas of happiness and community that could spark conversation with young readers. Or they can simply enjoy it as a mystery and adventure story.

As an adult reader, I found the book a bit too simplistic with a few too many questions and points left unanswered. I also found the chapters to be aggravatingly short with seemingly random chapter breaks but, again, I’m not a child.

Book Review: Beloved by Toni Morrison

I’ve read Toni Morrison’s Bluest Eye previously and had a vague idea of what Beloved was about so I knew I was in for a heavy read. To be honest, I’d put off reading this novel for that very reason. Yet as I read Beloved, I was reminded that sometimes it’s important to look closely at hard things. Hard things like slavery, racism, abuse, death. These are realities of life and our world history and to look away from them is to deny the pain that has been caused, that real life people have suffered through, and continue to suffer through. While this is a fictional novel, it deals with many historical truths, particularly just how horrific slavery is.

The present tense of the novel takes place in Ohio, a few years after the end of the Civil War. Sethe and her daughter Denver live alone, haunted by the ghost of Sethe’s first daughter who died as a baby. Sethe was a slave who escaped while pregnant with Denver. She was reunited with her children, sent ahead, but has never seen or heard from her husband since.

Sethe’s history – and the story of those around her – slowly unspirals. The book is fairly non-linear with several sections in a sort of stream-of-consciousness. Stories are revealed in pieces, things so horrific the characters can hardly bear to speak of them or to let them dwell in their minds. Each has a terrible tale to tell – Paul D and his time in prison, Ella and her time with “the lowest yet”, Baby Suggs and the children that were taken from her – killed or sold – one by one so that she taught herself not to love them. And Sethe and the truth of what happened to her daughter.

One day Sethe and Denver return home from the carnival and a young woman is sitting in front of their house. She calls herself Beloved and seems to not know who she is or where she came from. She seems to know things about them and Sethe and Denver come to believe that she is the ghost of Sethe’s first daughter, returned to them. What her intentions are remain unclear. And how Sethe will react to the horrible history this spectre forces her to look at.

While slow to start as I tried to piece the plot together, I was soon absorbed in these characters and their stories. It was hard to read, especially as I look at my own two daughters, my mind reeling away from the idea of such things happening to them. My own privilege allows me the luxury of looking away away from this terrible history but I believe it’s important to listen to these stories, to remember that fiction can be full of truth.

Not a Book Review: A Boys’ Treasury of Sea Stories

A Boys’ Treasury of Sea Stories

I didn’t read this book from cover-to-cover, nor do I expect anyone to run out and buy this exact copy, so for those reasons this isn’t exactly a book review. I picked up this story collection at a thrift store but my dad later pointed out to me that we had the same book at home when I was a kid. I assume it’s actually from his childhood, rather than mine. And not just because he was the one alive in the 1960s.

Speaking of the 1960s…I suppose it was more appropriate then to label a book as being for boys, though I have seen recent children’s books gendered in a similar way. Personally, I’m not sure what about these stories makes them for boys, except the old stereotype of swashbuckling adventures being something girls aren’t interested in. I do bristle against this stereotype and as a mom of two girls now, I fully intend to introduce them to all kinds of stories. In fact, spotting the cover of this book on my nightstand, Pearl eagerly grabbed hold of it, gleefully proclaiming, “Boat! I want to look at this!”

As for the stories themselves, they turned out to be a mixed bag. There are a few sections taken from novels, such as The Count of Monte Cristo, Moby Dick, and Kidnapped. Having read the novels before, I skimmed over those parts, though they might serve as a good introduction to a young reader. The standalone stories were fairly hit or miss – there are a couple of fascinating ones from Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe. The non-fiction tales of ships interested me less, being either straightforward accounts of ships (where they were built, who sailed them, etc) or borderline racist descriptions of World War Two battles in the Pacific.

There are other ways you can read the novels and stories featured here so I can’t think of a reason to seek out this collection. Maybe if you are trying to gather sexist book titles of the 20th century?

Book Review: Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin

Winter’s Tale – Mark Helprin (A Harvest Book)

Where to start talking about a book like Winter’s Tale? Almost more of a philosophical venture than a novel; it’s magic realism, fantasy, historical fiction, a little bit of cyber punk. There’s even time travel. Sort of.

Blurbs will tell you that Winter’s Tale is the story of Peter Lake, a thief who falls in love with a rich man’s daughter when breaking into their house in New York City. While this is definitely a key part of the book, it doesn’t really encompass the whole novel because Peter Lake isn’t even in other parts of the book and his love story with Beverly Penn really doesn’t take up much of the novel.

This is more a story about an idea. About winter, about a city that almost exists. Helprin delves into the lives of other characters, each of them connected, and into the tale of a magical, unbelievable winter, in a version of New York City that could almost be real. There’s a horse that can fly, a cloud wall that swallows people whole, and a village that you can’t get to except by accident.

The descriptions are rich and extensive. There are many, many descriptions of winter and snow and ice and they offer enough variance that they continue to feel fresh even as the novel progresses for seven hundred pages. The story also delves into the lives of several different characters, sometimes more than seems necessary considering some of them are pretty minor, but overall the stories are interesting and add to an overall depth of this fantastical world.

Much of the story is set in New York on the cusp of the millennium and it’s interesting to read a vision of what is now our past from the 1980s. New York is gritty and violent; not being personally familiar with the city I never quite got a handle on what was supposed to be lifelike and what was not and instead chose to see the portrayal as one of a mythical city. Personally, I felt like the story works better when you forget that it’s supposed to be set in New York. This clearly is not our world and the attempts to ground it in the familiar often felt jarring.

With a book this size, the question is often, “Was it worth it?” And I would say a tentative yes. There are enough truly beautiful sections of writing that made reading this novel worthwhile. The plot lacks a cohesiveness that perhaps a shorter novel could provide but Helprin is attempting to delve into ideas so large – justice and love being primary among them – that I couldn’t help but cut him some slack. Not every reader will feel the same way. If you enjoy some magic realism and extreme flights of fancy and don’t need a plot going from Point A to B to C then you might enjoy Winter’s Tale too.

Book Review: Ghost Warning by Kara Stanley

 

Ghost Warning – Kara Stanley (Caitlin Press, 2017)

Lou and her dad live a simple life, just the two of them, in a small town. When her dad dies unexpectedly, Lou boards a bus and heads to Toronto. There she moves in with her older brother, Jonah, and creates a community of sorts in the midst of the big city. There’s her new best friend Isabelle, the neighbourhood crazy lady Stella, and her drunken godfather. Toronto is an entirely different place than her quiet town and the neighbourhood is currently being plagued by a serial rapist and potentially someone who is setting homeless people on fire. Lou believes her journalist father was investigating these crimes and becomes entangled in figuring out whose behind it all.

Lou is a charming and likeable kid and her story is mostly pretty believable. While she and Jonah are able to make a decent life for themselves in the city, Lou is also clearly depressed and a little unstable and this is realistic when you consider what she’s been through. Nothing in her new life takes the place of what she’s lost when her dad died. The surrounding characters all feel pretty realistic and have a decent amount of depth to them.

The weakest aspect of the novel is really the plot. It’s hard to say what the novel wants to be. It’s not really a mystery, though that seems like the most solid plot line on offer. Lou falls into the middle of the mystery a little too easily and figures it out way too easily. There isn’t really any other solution on offer, which makes any sense of a mystery here feel impossible.

The final section of the novel finds Lou on the West Coast in what seems like an entirely different novel. Here we see an attempt at some sort of conclusion, some overarching lesson that Lou has learned, but because it doesn’t involve any of her previous life or the people in it, it feels like it’s part of a different story and doesn’t offer much satisfaction to the reader.

Overall though, there is a lot here to appeal to a reader and I’ll be interested to see what Stanley produces next.

Book Review – Bellevue Square by Michael Redhill

Bellevue Square – Michael Redhill

Having previously read Michael Redhill’s Consolation, and having found it a bit boring, I wasn’t all that excited for his latest novel. But it sounded interesting enough that when I had the chance of getting an advanced copy, I decided to take it. I’m happy to report that it’s definitely not boring.

Jean is a middle-aged woman who has been living in Toronto for two years, since her husband retired from the police force. She owns a used book shop and lives a pretty ordinary existence. Then one day a regular customer tells her he just saw her in Kensington Market and he’s strangely insistent about it. Turns out, Jean has a doppelganger.

Likely most of us have been told we look like someone a friend knows. A cousin or an acquaintance or the girl who works at the grocery store, it’s not rare to be told, “You look just like…!” But after more than one person insists that Jean is identical to a woman named Ingrid who is seen in the Market, Jean decides to stake out Bellevue Square so she can see for herself. She gets to know the diverse and eccentric characters (many of them homeless or struggling with mental illness) who hang out in the Square and she finds herself lying to her husband about where she’s actually spending her days.

I always question stories where characters become so obsessive as to spend eight hours a day doing something like hanging out in a park waiting to see someone they heard looks like them. After all, who has eight hours to spare like that? However, Redhill uses this to the plot’s advantage by showing us how Jean become increasingly unstable and unreliable, particularly as a narrator. As the novel progresses, there are a few twists, until we’re left wondering what is real and what’s delusion. Redhill does this very skillfully, delving into brain trauma and mental illness in a way that’s both fascinating and thrilling.

The ending feels over the top and leans toward the ridiculous, but it also kind of works within the context of “is any of this really happening?” Can we trust Jean? Which woman is real – Jean or Ingrid? Or is any of this real?

Bellevue Square was nominated for the Giller Prize this year and I believe it’s well deserved. Redhill shows his skill as a writer and brings Toronto – particularly the vibrant area of Kensington Market – to life in this latest novel, as well as creating strange yet realistic characters that I wanted to keep reading about.

What I Read – October 2017

Bellevue Square – Michael Redhill (Doubleday Canada, 2017)

A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles (Viking, 2016)

The End We Start From – Megan Hunter (Hamish Hamilton, 2017)

Ghost Warning – Kara Stanley (Caitlin Press, 2017)

Winter’s Tale – Mark Helprin (A Harvest Book, 1983)

All rivers run full to the sea; those who are apart are brought together; the lost ones are redeemed; the dead come back to life; the perfect blue days that have begun and ended in golden dimness continue, immobile and accessible; and when all is perceived in such a way as to obviate time, justice becomes apparent not as something that will be, but as something that is. – Mark Helprin, Winter’s Tale

A Boys’ Treasury of Sea Stories (Paul Hamlyn, 1968)

Currently Reading:

The Beauty Myth – Naomi Wolf

The Lifters – Dave Eggers

Book Review: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles

I’d heard so many rave reviews of Amor Towles’ second novel that I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. More than one person said it was the best book of the year for them. So it was perhaps inevitable that I would set myself up for disappointment.

The book is certainly entertaining I just expected…more. More than Eloise for grown-ups, which is what I kept thinking of as I read the novel.

We begin in 1922 when Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is sentenced to house arrest. Fortunately, he lives in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow so while he is a prisoner of sorts, it’s a pretty luxurious prison. The Count is an easy-going, aristocratic fellow, used to the finer things in life such as wine, good food, beautiful women. He’s still able to enjoy all of these things over the next years of his life in the Metropol. Truthfully, it’s hard to say how much his life really changes by his imprisonment. This is partially because we don’t see much of his life previous to his sentence and partially because his life doesn’t actually change much. Not through the upheavals of Moscow in the early twentieth century, not through World War Two. There are references to food scarcity and some political meetings but it never feels like the Count is in danger or that much of anything bad will happen to him. He seems to live a charmed, if imprisoned life.

The novel is largely character driven and it does sparkle here as we get to know the people who live and work in the Metropol. They are eccentric and charming and although some start off a little flat, Towles does a good job of expanding their lives as the Count gets to know each one better. When Towles takes us deeper into the lives of these characters – showing us what life is like for them outside of the hotel, for example – the novel offers glimpses of real depth. Unfortunately, these scenes are short and infrequent. As Russia changes so does the Count’s position and prestige and he adapts remarkably well to this for someone used to a life of ultimate privilege. It probably helps that he is apparently unbelievably talented at everything he sets his mind to – from eavesdropping to seat arrangements.

I would have liked to see more of the broader setting of Moscow. The novel spans from 1922 into the 1960s, a time of huge change in Russia and in the lives of ordinary people. Yet Towles seems to downplay the historical background as insignificant to the story of the Count. It’s hard to imagine that even in such a unique setting as the Metropol, people would be living so separately from the life of the city at large.

There’s lots to enjoy here as the book is well-written, often funny, and has a certain sparkle of language that makes it easy to read. If you’re looking for something more in-depth or challenging about Russia in the early 20th century, this isn’t it.