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.

Advertisements

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.

Book Review: All We Leave Behind by Carol Off

All We Leave Behind – Carol Off (Random House Canada, 2017)

One of the signs of a compelling book for me is when I want to tell other people all about it. Or when I lay awake after reading it, thinking over various parts. All We Leave Behind did both.

Carol Off is a well-respected CBC journalist with a long career. (For those non-Canadians, that’s the Canadian Broadcast Corporation and it’s generally well regarded.) While reporting in Afghanistan in 2002, shortly after 9/11, Off interviewed an Afghan man named Asad who spoke out, on camera, about corruption and particularly against one of the warlords being enabled by US involvement. Because of Asad’s bold statements, made in hopes of change being possible in his country, his life and the lives of his family are eventually in danger and they are forced to flee Afghanistan.

Off begins the novel with an early experience as a reporter in Pakistan, one that taught her, Be careful what you wish for and reminds us that sometimes a journalist’s best story is the worst day of someone else’s life. It’s a strong way of establishing the conflict that many journalists feel. How do you report a story in a neutral manner? How do you stay objective in the face of suffering? And when do you get involved.

When Asad and his family escape Afghanistan and Off realizes that it was her reporting that put them in danger, she becomes involved in bringing them to Canada as refugees, crossing many professional boundaries but believing that it’s the right thing to do.

The book does a superb job of outlining Afghan history, both in a broad sense but also through focusing on Asad’s life and that of his family. We witness the changes the country goes through from the 1970s until present day and the influences of the rest of the world. Off provides the right amount of information so that someone relatively unfamiliar with Afghan history is able to follow along and I never felt lost or bogged down in the historical context. Off doesn’t spare feelings and doesn’t always shy away from naming names. She can be scathing in her denouncements of US involvement but she doesn’t let Canada off the hook either.

The second part of the book focuses on Asad’s struggle to first be recognized as a refugee and then to be accepted into Canada. Off definitely shows her political leanings here, outlining the ways that Harper’s Conservatives failed in a refugee crisis, as she details how Asad and his family struggled through the bureaucracy and redtape, floundering in the system for years while their lives were in danger. I get the sense that Carol Off and I are on similar sides of the political spectrum, so these strong opinions didn’t bother me but I imagine they may turn off some readers. (That said, if you know Off from her work with the CBC, you might not be surprised.)

As a Canadian, it was a harsh reminder that we are not always the peaceful, helpful nation we view ourselves as and that our hands have not remained clean in conflict worldwide. Even if our government tries to tell us we have. The book ends in late 2015 and it’s encouraging to think of how many Syrian refugees have been brought into Canada since then. At the same time, All We Leave Behind is a powerful lesson that many more are languishing in camps, turned back from safe borders, or perishing before they reach safety.

While this book will primarily be of interest to Canadians (and probably Canadians who find their ideals already align with Off’s), I think it would be a great read for anyone wanting to know more about either Middle East conflict or the experience of refugees. It’s well-written and informative and a topic that is only becoming more important in our current political climate worldwide.

Book Review: The Good People by Hannah Kent

The Good People – Hannah Kent (Little, Brown & Company, 2017)

With her second novel, Hannah Kent confirms that she is a master of historical fiction. As with Burial Rites (read my review here), Kent uses a true historical story to build her novel around. This time the setting is early 19th century Ireland and the tale revolves around “the good people” – the fairies and the belief in them that is slowly being pushed out by modern thought and religion.

The story focuses on three women. The first is Nora, who we meet on the day that she is left widowed by the sudden death of her husband, Martin. This follows less than a year after their daughter’s death and leaves Nóra as the sole guardian of her grandson, Micheál. Four years old, Micheál has come to Nóra without the ability to walk or talk, though she remembers him as a healthy, thriving toddler. Nóra becomes convinced that the child is a changeling and enlists the help of Nance, an outsider in their small community who understands the good people and their ways and promises to restore Nóra’s grandson to her. Mary, a young girl hired to help Nóra care for Micheál is caught between loyalty to her mistress and concern for the child.

As with Burial Rites, Kent’s descriptions of place and character are strong. Rural Ireland in the 1820s is dirt-filled, smoky, and crowded. Starvation is always close by. People live in close quarters, with each other and their animals. Kent’s descriptions of the daily rituals that survival requires – the building of fires, the milking of cows, the collecting of rushes for the dirt floor are fascinating and add well to the atmosphere without become overwhelming or boring. The story is dark both in place and content. We see the superstition that guides every step of these peoples’ lives. These rituals are very interesting to read from a modern perspective and the novel does well at drawing at the growing tension between these traditional beliefs and the modern world.

While the story is based around the facts of a true historical event, I think it was best to know nothing of the facts before reading the story. Without knowing how it ends, the events are even more compelling (and shocking) as Kent reveals them. Either way though, this is an excellent novel and shows Kent’s growing talent.

Book Review: Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8 by Naoki Higashida

 

Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8 – Naoki Higashida (Random House, 2017)

This collection of short essays (plus an interview and a short story) follows Higashida’s previous book translated into English, The Reason I Jump. I haven’t read Higashida before and while The Reason I Jump may provide some helpful context and personal history, I don’t think it’s necessary to have read it first. It also seems that Higashida has quite a bit more writing that hasn’t yet been translated from Japanese to English.

The introduction by David Mitchell (who also does the translation, along with KA Yoshida) provides an excellent background into Higashida’s story, as well as offering Mitchell’s viewpoint as to why this book is so important. Short version: Higashida was considered severely autistic and non-verbal until a new way of communicating through an alphabet chart was figured out. This new communication revealed Higashida to have a complex and emphatic inner life, exactly like any other young man his age.

Higashida is now in his mid-twenties and his writing is deliberate and thoughtful. The segments are not long as communication, both written and spoken, is not a quick process for him. He offers insights into how his own mind works and methods that help him in his interactions with those around him. Higashida doesn’t suggest that these methods would work for everyone with autism and the book is certainly not a how-to guide. That said, I can’t help but think that it would be a helpful and powerful read for anyone who works or lives alongside someone with autism.

While this is admittedly well outside my field of expertise, it does seem that there have been a few highly publicized stories in recent years of so-called severe autistic people who, it turned out, were fully aware of their surroundings and needed only to find a way to communicate with those around them. And, as Mitchell points out in his introduction, these new found ways of communication revealed that the stereotype of a lack of empathy in those on the autistic spectrum is perhaps a false one.

Higashida certainly writes about the world with a lot of interest and empathy. We get a sense of his frustration at his own behaviours and his strong desire for compassion and patience from  those around him. There is some discussion of styles that didn’t work for him and that he wouldn’t recommend but there is not condemnation toward those who haven’t understood him. His writing about his relationship with his mother seems particularly tender.

The book is a slow read, one to be dipped into here and there rather than read in one sitting. I do believe it’s an important one though, especially for teachers and others who may work alongside autistic people.

Book Review: The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

The Heart’s Invisible Furies follows the life of Cyril Avery, beginning in the 1940s and jumping ahead every seven years and, in doing so, also outlining the history of Ireland in the 20th century and many of the changes it went through.

We begin with Cyril’s mother, publicly cast out of her church, family, and town due to her pregnancy outside of marriage. A teenage girl alone, she heads to Dublin, makes an unexpected friend and gives birth to her son in violent circumstances.

Cyril is adopted by the eccentric Averys, a brilliant and rather emotionally abusive couple who raise him with a sort of benign neglect, frequently reminding him that he’s not a real Avery after all. Cyril forms a close and confusing friendship with another boy, Julian, and over the years we watch their relationship develop as the world around them changes.

The book is very readable with interesting characters. Cyril is likeable and compelling through all his various life stages, despite his sometimes atrodicous behaivours and poor decisions. He is easy to sympathize with, especially as he struggles against the conservative norms of Ireland in the mid-20th century. The novel does not make Ireland look particularly like a place you’d want to live but by the end of the novel, Boyne does give a sense of just how much this country is changing. It is also quite negative toward the Catholic church, without offering much to balance out the sometimes over-the-top portrayals of religious prejudice.

Probably the weakest aspect of the novel is its many coincidences. I came away with the impression of Dublin being very small, simply because Cyril keeps running into the same people over and over again. Through his whole life, he doesn’t seem to branch out much in his acquaintances. At least not until much later, at which point it feels almost jarring because his life changes so much so quickly.

Any book that attempts to encompass nearly a century of history requires a lot of ambition and, I think, Boyne succeeds overall. He falls into a few tropes but the book is entertaining enough that it was an enjoyable read with interesting characters.

Book Review: The Golden House by Salman Rushdie

 

The Golden House – Salman Rushdie (Random House, 2017)

Salman Rushdie’s latest novel begins with the arrival of Nero Golden and his three sons in New York City, on the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration. These four men have appeared in the city under mysterious circumstances, from an unnamed country, with assumed names. They move into a close knit, wealthy neighbourhood with a shared garden and our narrator, Rene, a young and aspiring filmmaker takes an interest in this unusual family.

Over the next eight years, Rene becomes intimately involved with the Golden family and steadily reveals their secrets, their foibles, and their tragedies. The book lends itself easily to comparisons with The Great Gatsby – the narrator located slightly outside of the main action. A young man both drawn in and repulsed by a lifestyle of fabulous wealth. A very rich and powerful man with a mysterious background. Rene becomes far more entangled with the Goldens than Nick ever became with Gatsby but the comparison is apt and no doubt intentional on Rushdie’s part.

I have to admit, I’ve never been able to get into a Rushdie novel before. I’ve tried twice with Midnight’s Children and quickly lost interest. So I went into this one with low expectation but was quickly engaged. Rene is a strong narrator and the rate of revelation works well. While there are definite secrets withheld, it never feels like information is being kept from the reader simply for the sake of creating false tension. I did find Rene rather unlikeable and for the first maybe third of the book wished that it wouldn’t focus on him and his background so much. However, as the story progresses, we see how entwined he becomes with the Goldens and it makes more sense as one over-arching story.

The Goldens are an interesting assortment of characters. Nero, powerful and terrifying with some surprising (and unsurprising) weaknesses. A character who walks the line of a stereotype dangerously closely but never quite crosses over. Petya, the oldest son, brilliant and deeply troubled. Apu, the middle son, artistic and angry. D, the youngest son of a different mother, struggling to find his place in the family and in his own life. They’re each compelling and their stories are fascinating. As time and the novel progresses, both the family’s tale and the world itself become more of a tragedy.

As the Goldens fall apart, so too does their adopted country. A political leader, known only as The Joker, comes to power and the world around Rene quickly changes. The comparison to Donald Trump and the current state of American politics is obvious. While perhaps heavy-handed (The Joker is literally a cartoon villain after all) it makes for remarkably timely commentary. I was reading The Golden House as events unfolded in Charlottesville and it made it all feel extra eery. It will be interesting to see how the novel reads in five or ten years, in the aftermath of Trump’s America.

For a first-time introduction to Salman Rushdie’s work, the book is terrific. I highly recommend it and I would recommend it even more now in our current political climate.

Book Review: Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero (Blumhouse Books, 2017)

Meddling Kids – Edgar Cantero (Blumhouse Books, 2017)

If you ever thought that the Scooby Gang probably needed therapy as adults, this book is for you.

Set in the 1990s, the action of Meddling Kids takes place a decade or so after the final case of the Blyton Summer Detective Club. Four kids (and their dog) foil the plans of a grown man in a monster costume, finally lying to rest the persistent rumours of a lake monster. Now adults, the three surviving members (and a new generation of dog) have never returned to Blyton Hills. Andy’s spent time in prison, Nate’s in a mental hospital, and Kerry (the brilliant one) drinks too much. Peter’s been dead for years but Nate still talks to him a lot.

Suspecting there was more to their final case than the man in the monster suit, Andy rounds up the gang and they return to Blyton Hills to confront their demons. Both literal and figurative. Turns out, a lake monster may be the least of their concerns.

I never watched much Scooby Doo so there may be references that I missed out but I don’t think it mattered much. This story is pure entertainment. Over the top with necromancers, monsters from space, immortal beings, and accidental spells. It’s got a few twists and it’s lots of fun. The characters aren’t particularly deep but are interesting enough that I enjoyed their interactions and it was easy to cheer for them. Realistic fiction this is not but if you’re looking for a fun, fantastical, and a little bit nostalgic read, you may enjoy Meddling Kids.

Book Review: You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me – Sherman Alexie (Little, Brown & Co, 2017)

If you’ve read Sherman Alexie’s work before, particularly The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (which I reviewed here) then you likely know a bit of Alexie’s story already. His writing is infused with his own life experiences, particularly growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation.

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me gets even more intimate as he delves into his childhood, his family, and his relationship with his mother, who died in 2015. It’s complicated, loving, and often sad. Near the beginning of the book Alexie details the story of the night his mother stopped drinking and credits that decision with saving his and his siblings’ lives. His mother paid the bills, kept them fed, and protected them within the volatile environment of the reservation and a loving but alcoholic family. At the same time, she could also be cruel, vindictive, and an awful lawyer. Alike in many ways, Alexie and his mother were often at odds and went years without speaking to each other.

This is also the story of the Spokane people. Of Indigenous people in America. Of a salmon people who have lost their salmon. Of men and women who have grown up amidst loss and violence and poverty. It is Alexie’s story but not his alone. Like Junior in The Absolutely True Diary, Alexie chose to attend high school outside of the reservation, surrounded by white kids. He tells a compelling story of attending a funeral for one of his classmates and realizing how differently death was dealt with on the reservation and off. Most strikingly, Alexie realizes that while he has already been to dozens of funerals, for most of his classmates this is their first up-close experience with death.

The book is an unusual mix of poetry and prose, with short chapters that dip into moments in his life or the history of the Spokane people and then move on to something completely different. The book has a looping, loping feel, often returning to the same topics or moments, clearly the ones that linger in Alexie’s memories.

His honesty is what makes the book. At times it feels like reading someone’s private diaries. Like Alexie’s fiction, it provides a fantastic viewpoint into a life and history that many of us in North America are not as familiar with as we should be. I recommend it for both its quality writing and the important topic of life for many Indigenous people in America today.