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?

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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.

 

Book Review: How to Breathe Underwater by Julie Orringer

How to Breathe Underwater – Julie Orringer

This collection of short stories focuses primarily on adolescent girls. The stories are compelling and readable and not at all familiar with my experience of being a teenage girl. Which isn’t to say that they don’t ring true but by the time I got to the end of the collection, it felt like the intensity of the stories as a whole was a bit artificial.

These are young girls with a lot of life experience. There is violence, sex, drug use, guns, death. And while no one story feels over the top, all together it kind of does. In the end, this is probably a story collection best read with long breaks in between each story.

Many of the stories are told from – and feel like they’re told from – an adult perspective. There is an omniscience and distance from the events themselves that feels more adult. Even the first person stories lack the chaotic urgency of a teenager relating something traumatic that happened to them. For the most part, I appreciated this and Orringer makes it work. She does play with form a little, including one story in the second person. (Not my favourite narration or my favourite story but I appreciate the effort.) The stories have a sort of feeling of an adult wishing they could go back and warn their younger self. And after all, isn’t that something we’ve all wished we could have done?

 

 

Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

The Bear and the Nightingale – Katherine Arden (Del Rey, 2016)

Someone recommended this book to me and I was drawn in by the lovely cover and was excited to read this story based on Russian myth and lore. While it didn’t match my high expectations, it was a readable and enjoyable story and a twist on a fairy tale that might not be familiar to North American audiences.

This is medieval Russia – cold and barren, Christian but still steeped in the superstitious lore of tradition. Vasilisa is the youngest daughter of a wealthy family, the child predicted to bear the unique talents of her mysterious grandmother. She is a wild young girl, preferring to be outdoors, seeing things that others don’t. The family and the peasants under them honour the old mythical creatures and the stories that are told of them and so are protected from the harsh winter and nature of the world around them.

All of this changes when Vasilisa’s father re-marries. Her stepmother is deeply religious and forbids the old ways and the region quickly falls into chaos, death, and starvation without the protections of the old household gods. It is up to Vasilisa to defend both the mythical tbeings and her family as an even greater threat lurks closer.

Is this book great literature? No. But it’s fun and fantastical and the peek at Russian mythology made for an interesting read. It is the first book in a trilogy but I can’t say I have much desire to continue on with the other books. To be honest, that’s a point in the novel’s favour for me because it does have its own complete ending and wraps up the story plot while still keeping room for the next book. I’m happy to enjoy it on its own but if this book truly grabs you, there is room for more of Vasilisa’s adventures.

 

Book Review: And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie (Cardinal Editions, 1960)

I was inspired to re-read Agatha Christie’s famous mystery novel And Then There Were None after reading FictionFan’s book review. I’d read this short mystery story a couple of times before, years ago, but it had always stuck in my memory as one of the finest mystery novels I’ve read. Years ago, reading it for the first time, I recall the tension as the plot unfolded.

Ten people find themselves on a remote island with a mysterious reputation – eight guests and two servants. Their host/employer is unknown to each of them and doesn’t seem to be present on the island. A recording accuses them each of murder and then they begin to die, one by one. With no one else on the island, it’s clear that one of the ten is an insane murderer.

Having read the book before, I remembered clearly who the murderer was and how he managed to pull of such a complex scheme. The first time I read And Then There Were None, it was truly creepy as the group was killed off and suspicions grew between each of them. While this read didn’t have that level of creepiness, it was fascinating to observe the murderer at work and how, if the reader was observant enough, there were clues to point in his or her direction.

When discussing mystery stories with someone recently, they gave Agatha Christie as an example of a “tidy” mystery writer. Meaning there isn’t a lot of blood and gore and the mystery is neatly solved at the end of the story. Actions and motives are explained. While some readers may not like this, I realized this is exactly what I like best in a mystery. I want a clear answer at the end of the novel and I want it fully resolved. And I don’t like reading about a lot of blood and gore. So while I don’t enjoy a lot of mysteries, I have always enjoyed Agatha Christie’s work.

And Then There Were None is deservedly one of Christie’s most famous stories. She was a master of tension and suspense. Much of the book will feel dated to a modern reader but charmingly so – no island could be so close and yet so cut off as this one is. And re-reading the novel, I couldn’t help but wonder how ten people could be so willing to isolate themselves and not learn a little more about their host. At the bottom of it though, Christie understood something about human nature. What motivates us, what moves us, and what we fear.

Book Review: Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

 

Harmless Like You – Rowan Hisayo Buchanan (Sceptre, 2016)

I’ll start off by saying that I almost gave up on this book halfway through. I’m glad I didn’t but it isn’t a long novel and it took me most of it to feel truly engaged.

The story is divided between two characters and times. Yuki is a teenager in New York in the 1970s. Her family is Japanese, living a fairly isolated life in America due to her father’s job. Yuki is shy and lonely but just before her family is supposed to return to Japan, she makes her first friend. Somehow (and somewhat unbelievably) she convinced her parents to let her stay in Japan, living with her friend Odile and her inattentive mother. We follow Yuki over the next years of her life, as she struggles with her desire to be an artist, drops out of school, and falls into a sort of love.

The other section is narrated by Jay, whose father has just died. Jay and his wife have recently had a baby and Jay hates it. Both the lifestyle of parenthood and, seemingly, the baby itself. This is where the book lost me. I recognize that not everyone enjoys parenthood, that the early months are especially hard and that transition doesn’t always come easily. My problem with Jay is that he’s so completely unlikeable in his dislike of his daughter. He tells the reader that he loves his wife but his thoughts (and actions) surrounding her are so negative and unforgiving. His attitude seems to be one of having no idea how he ended up with a baby, as if he were tricked into the entire endeavour. He really doesn’t have a single redeeming characters and I didn’t care a bit what happened to him.

It’s clear from early on that Yuki is Jay’s mother, the mother who ran off from Jay and his father when Jay was very young. This brings me to my other problem with the novel. The author apparently cannot conceive that anyone would ever enjoy having children. The book is populated only with characters who are happy to be separated from their offspring. It’s pretty depressing.

Yuki, at least, is imbued with greater depth than Jay and while her reasons for abandonment are never entirely clear, she is portrayed as at least loving him. Something Jay seems unable to feel for his child.

For a first time writer, Buchanan has some strong work here. While occasionally guilty of over-writing and using four words where one would do, there are also glimmers of real talent and story-telling here. My main problem overall is really that the author feels very young to me and I can’t help but wonder if this story would be different coming from someone with more life experience. Only time can tell.

Book Review: Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory

Spoonbenders – Daryl Gregory (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017)

You know how, as you get older, you begin to realize that your family is maybe not so normal? That all the things they do that you thought were average, might actually be a little crazy? That’s what’s happening to Matty Telemachus.

Sure, Matty’s always known his family is unique. Not many families once travelled the country and performed psychic feats of strength on television. But that’s all years in the past and nobody in the Telemachus family has done anything amazing in years. Until Matty suddenly leaves his body one day and begins to wonder if he might also be an Amazing Telemachus.

Teddy Telemachus is the family patriarch, the driving force behind their once upon a time fame. Teddy met his wife Maureen when participating in a highly secretive government study of psychic powers in relation to the Cold War. Maureen, or Grandma Mo, has been dead for years and her children have largely rejected their own powers. Frankie is something of a low-level con, in debt to the mob and hiding too many secrets from his wife. Irene has just moved back in with her dad, along with her own son, Matty, and struggles to form real relationships because she knows when people are lying to her. And Buddy…well, Buddy might just be the World’s Most Powerful Psychic but he hasn’t spoken much in the last few years and he’s building some kind of weird project in the basement.

This novel is fun and goofy and if you’re willing to suspend belief, it’s a good read. Even aside from the psychic powers, the real world plot is pretty over the top too. The story moves between perspectives of Teddy, Matty, and the three siblings and the sections are pretty balanced in terms of interest and enjoyability. These are strange and flawed people but they’re likeable too and easy to root for. It’s not terribly difficult to see where it’s all going to end up but it’s fun to travel along as Gregory takes us there.

Book Review: 2 Short Story Collections

It’s a bit unfair to lump these two story collections in together but I read them almost back to back and, a few weeks later, am struggling to differentiate them in my mind.

A Manual for Cleaning Women – Lucia Berlin (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2015)

A Manual for Cleaning Women and Collected Stories are collections of a life’s worth of short stories by Lucia Berlin and Grace Paley, respectively. Both women are Americans and wrote primarily in the first half of the 20th centuries.While Paley’s stories are set in New York (almost entirely in Brooklyn), Berlin’s roam around the USA, delving into Mexico. They write about the ordinary lives of women, mostly at home, often surrounding their children and their failed relationships. A Canadian comparison might be the stories of Alice Munro, although Munro’s stories end up feeling almost pastoral compared to the crowded apartments of Berlin and Paley.

The Collected Stories – Grace Paley (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2009)

These story collections have two major things in common. The first is that each author leans heavily on their own life experiences. Berlin seems almost to be writing her own autobiography, often naming characters Lucia or delving into stories of her childhood in mining camps and South America. Her characters often have four sons, like Berlin herself did, and are divorced multiple times.

The second characteristic that I found the two collections to have in common was the recurrence of stories. Characters often popped up again and this made both collections have a larger feel, as the reader follows a woman through her life, watches her children grow, her marriage flourish and wilt, her neighbours age and change. It felt like a small challenge to connect the stories together. While they certainly stand as individual tales, the connections definitely add.

Both Berlin and Paley are excellent story tellers and while they’re overall experience of life as women, wives and mothers in the early 20th century doesn’t echo my own in 2017, there are certainly many familiar moments. I would categorize Berlin’s stories as slightly darker – there was one I stopped reading partway through – but I enjoyed each collection and found both of these women an important addition to modern American writing.

Book Review: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas (Balzer + Bray, 2017)

While Angie Thomas’ first novel is being marketed as a young adult novel. I would greatly encourage all readers interested in modern America, racial issues, or violence among youth to read it. The book is probably most appropriate for older teen readers (15+) due to violence and some language. It’s a fairly easy read but has a lot of content.

Starr Carter is sixteen years old, lives with her family in the ghetto of Garden Heights. Her dad, a former gang-banger who spent time in prison, has since turned his life around and owns the local grocery store. After witnessing the death of a friend in a drive-by shooting, Starr and her brothers are sent across town to a prestigious, predominantly white school.

Starr is no stranger to violence and drugs but her family life is stable and the Garden is home. She feels pulled between the two worlds she inhabits – her black neighbourhood and her white school – and knows she no longer quite fits into either one. Attending a party one night in the Garden, she’s uncomfortable and out of place and happy to live early with an old friend, Khalil, after a fight breaks out.

Driving home, Khalil is pulled over by a police officer and Starr becomes the only witness when the cop shoots and kills Khalil. If you’ve been watching the news at all in the past two years, you might be familiar with how this story plays out.

We follow Starr over the following weeks as tensions and violence rise in her neighbourhood. As her friends at school make disparaging remarks about Khalil being a drug dealer or a member of a gang. And as Starr struggles with finding her voice and deciding whether to come forward publicly to defend Khalil, or to protect herself first.

While I grew up in a very ethnically diverse neighbourhood, I’m not that familiar with African-American culture so I can’t speak to the accuracy of Thomas’ depiction of the ghetto. Parts of the novel felt like they dipped into the cliche – Starr’s father’s backstory, for example, or even a side story about her family helping a young man escape from the local gang – but I have to defer to Thomas’ knowledge and overall the book felt very authentic. It’s filled with pop culture references and language that is up-to-date and, I think, would appeal to a youthful audience.

Thomas does an excellent job of depicting Starr’s split between her two worlds, using language and dialogue to show how she adapts to her surroundings. Starr realizes the need to be tightly controlled around her white friends at school, that she can never slip or risk being stereotyped as the “ghetto girl” or the “angry black girl”. There is a decent progression of her finding a better balance between these worlds and learning to trust more people on both sides.

Overall, I think this book makes a great introduction for anyone interested in the Black Lives Matters movement. It could offer many starting places for discussion with young readers, or anyone who might want to know more.

Book Review: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara (Doubleday, 2015)

I’ve been sitting on this review for a while, pondering how I feel about A Little Life. Turns out, the longer I wait, the less I feel as though I really liked this novel.

I heard several rave reviews of it before I started (including the cashier at Powells when I picked up a used copy in Portland) and so was happy to tackle the huge hardcover. And it wasn’t hard to get into. The characters are interesting and diverse and the book moves forward quickly and with a rate of revelation that makes you want to keep reading.

The novel’s description will tell you that it’s about four friends: Willem, Jude, JB, and Malcolm, and that it follows them from their early twenties, shortly after they’ve been roommates in university, and through the next forty or so years of life. That isn’t false but it’s really more the story of Jude and Willem. At some point, JB and Malcolm drop to secondary characters and while the book checks in on them occasionally, we don’t get much detail of their lives and we stop seeing anything from their perspective.

Even more so, the book is about Jude. It is Jude’s mysterious background and childhood that compel the reader to keep reading, as it is slowly revealed, and it is Jude’s development (or lack thereof) that we’re following. And while this is what kept me interested while I read, it’s also what makes me look back on the novel with a little less affection.

Jude arrives at university two years younger than his new roommates (who quickly become his first friends) and with his past shrouded with secrecy. He doesn’t talk about his home or family and others soon learn not to ask. At one point, it’s mentioned that they don’t even know Jude’s ethnicity, which I found slightly hard to believe and an unnecessary mystery.

Jude’s past is horrific. This is clear from early on and as the story progresses, more is steadily revealed until we learn the final, terrible event that left Jude physically disabled. There’s no one event in Jude’s life that is unbelievable – unfortunately, the world is full of terrible people and events and things like this do happen to children. It wasn’t even the sheer amount of horror that occurs to Jude in his life that felt unrealistic, it was that it is never balanced by a single moment of kindness. Everyone Jude meets from birth to about age sixteen is terrible and abusive. And then everyone after that (with one notable exception) loves and cares for and protects Jude. It seems that there is no middle ground with Jude; either people respect and care for him or they hate him and physically abuse him. This is a world without people who are ambivalent to or ignore others, it seems.

It’s a pity because Jude is an interesting character and the book uniquely looks at his life and the aftermath of his abusive childhood. The trauma of it follows and affects him for the rest of his life and it makes for a fascinating and heartbreaking portrayal of a person struggling to recover from something so terrible.

The friendship of Willem and Jude is central to the novel and we get a decent look at Willem’s background and his own childhood and how that has affected him. However, he remains a somewhat one-dimensional character, more a foil for Jude than someone who would be interesting to read about in his own right. Partway through the book, the relationship between Willem and Jude changes drastically and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. I don’t want to reveal too much but it felt like an unnecessary alteration. The friendship that the two men have up until that point is powerful and unique and the change seems to be done more to create tension than anything else. It didn’t feel like a natural progression of their relationship.

While I’ve been rather negative here, I did enjoy A Little Life while I read it. It’s a big book but I finished it quickly because I wanted to keep reading it and to find out what happened to the characters. Yanagihara is clearly a skilled writer and I would be happy to read more of her work.