Book Review: Your Heart is the Size of Your Fist by Martina Scholtens


Your Heart is the Size of Your Fist – Martina Scholtens (Brindle & Glass, 2017)

My brother, who knows the author, gave me a copy of Your Heart is the Size of Your Fist, for my birthday. My big brother and I have similar taste a lot of the time, especially in books and music, and he’s one of the smartest people I know so I’m always happy to receive a new book from him. This memoir from a Vancouver doctor did not disappoint.

Martina Scholtens details her years working as a doctor for refugees in the heart of Vancouver. I grew up in Vancouver, spending most of my childhood and my adolescence in East Vancouver and, in fact, I once lived not far from Scholtens’ clinic. The Vancouver of my childhood was diverse and multicultural and complicated and this is mirrored in Scholtens’ experience. She worked exclusively with refugees in their first year in Canada. These are obviously people with complex backgrounds and traumas both physical and psychological. Scholtens is compassionate and pragmatic and writes beautifully of her struggles to help her patients and the connections she makes along the way.

She uses her relationship with one particular family as a thread that weaves in and out of the book but this is more of a personal reflection than anything else. There are stories of many patients; some are funny, many are heartbreaking. There are personal reflections on Scholtens’ own life and her struggle to find balance as both a doctor and a mother to young children. For part of the book she is recovering from a miscarriage and then is pregnant again and her vulnerability in sharing these parts of her life spoke strongly to me. Comparisons are drawn between her own life and the lives of her patients in subtle ways, and always Scholtens is aware of her own privilege. Of the gentle life she returns to each day in Deep Cove, away from the fears and concerns of her patients.

I finished this book and wanted to recommend it to everyone I saw. (I’ve already loaned out my copy.) Working moms, doctors, therapists, immigrants, human beings. There is something here to speak to the heart of any human who lives among humans. This is a beautiful book.


Book Review: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton


The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton (McClelland & Stewart, 2013)

My main problem with The Luminaries was that it was too big. Not too long – I definitely could have read more from Catton. The book is over 800 pages and in hardcover it was just too large for me to hold with one hand. And since I do much of my reading these days while holding a baby, I wasn’t able to get through the novel as fast as I wanted to.

Seriously though, I enjoyed this book a lot. As with any book of this size there are definitely parts that could be edited down or reduced. However this is a well and thoughtfully-crafted novel. Catton fits a lot in and the form and pace of the novel is superbly done.

Set in the mid-19th century in a gold mining town in New Zealand (Who knew New Zealand had a gold rush? Not me and not anyone I mentioned it to.) the story opens on the day Walter Moody arrives in Hokitika. He unwittingly stumbles across a council of twelve unlikely men, meeting in secret to discuss recent events. A hermit has been found dead, his house filled with stashed gold. The town’s richest man has disappeared. A prostitute has apparently attempted suicide in the road. All in one day.

The twelve men lay out their tales to Moody, who has his own strange experience en route to Hokitika to add to the mystery. The first section of the novel outlines how these twelve came to meet together and steadily unfolds all the strange elements of this story and how a hermit, a rich man, and a prostitute might be connected. From there we move forward in time in the next couple of sections and then back to the previous year.

The story is complex and sometimes confusing. There is a hoard of gold that changes hands so many times through so many various means that I really had to concentrate to make sure I understand the plot. However, the characters are clear and unique, well-drawn and fascinating. Catton does well at introducing them in the first section and letting the reader see their various biases and influences. Each man is connected and implicated somehow and while this adds to the complexity it also makes the story all the more fascinating and the tension greater.

Some of the most interesting stories belong to two Chinese characters, Ah Quee and Ah Sook. While life in Hokitika and New Zealand at this time is hard and dirty and often degrading, this is most seen for these two men. Their stories are truly heart-breaking and a harsh reminder of racist attitudes held around the world in history. By contrast, the female characters are weaker. There are only two (and fair enough, this would not have been a welcoming place for most women) and they each fall into stereotypes in their own way, despite both being very important characters and each at the crux of the mystery.

The part of the novel that missed the mark for me was the astrological structure of it. Granted, I know nothing of astrology so the outlines and references to charts and signs was meaningless but it also never seemed to be explained within the context of the story. Towards the end, there is some suggestion of a more powerful and spiritual answer to some of the unanswered questions. There are tantalizing hints given that greater forces may be at work but this feels like something the author tiptoes to the edge of. By neither staying completely in the realm of realism or diving fully into the realm of the mystical, Catton weakens the solution she does provide and ended up frustrating this reader.

All in all though, a truly excellent novel.

Book Review: Rules of Civility by Amor Towles


Rules of Civility – Amor Towles (Penguin Books, 2011)

First things first, I liked Rules of Civility better than A Gentleman in Moscow, Towles’ first book and I think I’m in the minority in this opinion so I’ll explain why. Both novels are well written and Towles clearly excels at bringing historical time periods to life, whether that’s New York in the 1930s, as seen in Rules of Civility or Moscow in the 1920s, as in A Gentleman in Moscow. My main issue with Gentleman was that Count Rostov was too good at everything. He lacked any real flaws and thus never felt like a real person to me.

Rules of Civility is the story of a year in the life of Katey Kontent, a young working woman in New York in the late 1930s. Katey tells us the story herself, looking back from a vantage point of middle age. She is young, beautiful, a little poor but independent and hopeful. On New Year’s Eve, she and a friend meet a rich and handsome stranger and their three lives become intertwined in some unexpected (and some expected) ways.

This is a very American story. It is a story of how people can re-make themselves, how they can become something different from the generations before them. It’s also a story about what that might cost a person and whether or not the something new and different is better than what came before. There are obvious influences of The Great Gatsby here and Katey is a bit of a Nick Carraway figure as she tells the story of Tinker Grey. However, she is much more intimately involved in the tale than Nick was with Gatsby and this allows Towles to expand the world of the story and introduce other characters, some of whom act as counterpoints to Grey and the other upperclass types that Katey begins to mingle with as the novel and the year progresses. Katey also has her own history that informs the story and how she views those around her.

As in A Gentleman in Moscow, Towles seems to idealize a less than ideal time in history. There’s very little reference to the Depression or how that might affect characters (several of whom are bankers). The rich seem as rich as ever and the poor seem ever on the cusp of changing their lives, if they only want it enough. The story is interesting though and the characters compelling so I didn’t find myself questioning it much as I read. I felt that there was more depth here than in Towles’ second novel and it made me far more sympathetic to and interested in the characters.


Book Review: 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff


84, Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff (Penguin Books, 1970)

Generally speaking, I don’t enjoy books centred around bookstores. I find they tend to romanticize an experience I’ve known very well in the real, practical world. So I didn’t begin 84, Charing Cross Road with high hopes, despite the fact that it was recommended to me by a bookseller. In the end, it surprised me. This slim book compiles 20 years of letters between Hanff in NYC and Marks & Cohen Books in London. What begins as a search for books evolves into a friendship with friends that never meet.

This is less a book about books or even bookstores and more a book about people and how they can be drawn together despite physical distance and cultural divide. Helene is brash, sometimes funny, occasionally rude, and often big-hearted while her English penpals tend to be much more restrained. As the letters continue and the relationship grows though the individual personalities of the bookstore employees (and their families) come out in charmingly cheeky ways.

The book also offers a peek into life in London following World War Two. Helene begins to send packages to the bookstore for Christmas, giving her long-distance friends treats like tinned ham and fresh eggs, things that are not available in post-war England. The letters she receives in thanks are quite lovely, demonstrating the deep appreciation for her gifts and the beauty of generosity among strangers.



What I Read – 2017

My Favourite Reads of 2017:

Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien

The Break – Katherine Vermette

The Lonely Hearts Hotel –  Heather O’Neill

Silence – Shusaku Endo

All We Leave Behind – Carol Off

The Golden House – Salman Rushdie

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me – Sherman Alexie

The Good People – Hannah Kent

Bellevue Square – Michael Redhill

Barrelling Forward – Eva Crocker

Wonder – R.J. Palacio

The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey

Thoughts and Observations:

  • My total number for the year is 72. Which comes in slightly below last year’s 76 so I’m pretty pleased.
  • Last year included 5 re-reads and I didn’t have any this year, despite intending to re-read a couple of classics
  • Speaking of classics, I read very few this year. That’s a goal I’ve set for 2018. Including (maybe) Ulysses…
  • Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of my reading is Fiction (61 fiction versus 11 non)
  • More surprisingly to me, I read very few theological type books this year. My non-fiction tended to be memoirs in 2017.
  • Female authors won out again this year with the women pulling ahead by a larger majority. (I counted 41 women and 28 men. So I obviously missed a few but I’m not going to go back and re-count.)
  • It surprises me to see that the U.S. is so highly represented with 31 authors. Canada, which usually wins this round, comes in next with 21 authors.
  • Also represented are: England, Ireland, Japan, Nigeria, India, Scotland, Russia, New Zealand, Chile, Spain, and Australia.
  • That said, only three books this year were translated from other languages. This is a category I know I always need to work on.
  • Other numbers:
    • 3 books were mysteries
    • 3 books had more than 500 pages.
    • 10 books were short story collections
    • 1 book was on parenting (Expect this number to increase in future!)
    • 7 were young adult or middle grade books
  • I abandoned 5 books without finishing them. (I don’t count these in my overall total.) This is actually a fairly high number for me but I am becoming more selective as I get older/my reading time becomes more limited.
  • I reviewed all but 6 of my 2017 reads, a number I’m pretty proud of. I had a 100% success rate until mid-November. I’m going to blame Rose for the drop off but I am hoping to catch up in 2018.

The Complete List:

1. The SelloutPaul Beatty (Picador, 2015)

2. Reflections on the PsalmsC.S. Lewis (Harvest Book, 1958)

3. I Carried You Home – Alan Gibney (Patrick Crean Editions, 2016)

4. Beauty Plus Pity – Kevin Chong (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2011)

5. The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey (Regan Arthur/Back Bay, 2012)

6. When She Was Electric – Andrea MacPherson (Polestar, 2003)

7. Perfect Little World – Kevin Wilson (Harper Collins, 2017)

8. Such is My Beloved – Morley Callaghan (McClelland & Stewart, 1994)

9. Fates and Furies  – Lauren Groff (Riverhead Books, 2015)

10. The Conjoined – Jen Sookfong Lee (ECW Press, 2016)

11. Here I Am – Jonathan Safran Foer

12. Barrelling Forward – Eva Crocker (House of Anansi, 2017)

13. The Best Kind of People – Zoe Whittall (Anansi, 2016)

14. What is not Yours is not Yours – Helen Oyeyemi (Hamish Hamilton, 2016)

15. Eileen – Otessa Moshfegh (Penguin, 2015)

16. The Dark and Other Love Stories – Deborah Willis (Hamish Hamilton, 2017)

17. How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen – Joanna Faber & Julie King (Scribner, 2017)

18. The Break – Katherena Vermette (Anansi, 2016)

19. Garden of Eden – Ernest Hemingway (Scribners, 1986)

20. A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara (Doubleday, 2015)

21. The Dinner Party and Other Stories – Joshua Ferris (Little, Brown, 2017)

22. Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Knopf Canada, 2017)

23. The Unwomanly Face of War – Svetlana Alexievich (Random House, 2017)

24. Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien (Knopf Canada, 2016)

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

26. A Manual for Cleaning Women – Lucia Berlin (Farrar, STrauss and Giroux, 2015)

27. The Five Love Languages – Gary Chapman (Northfield Publishing, 1995)

28. Silence – Shusaku Endo (Picador Classic, 2015)

29. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman (Viking, 2017)

30. The Collected Stories – Grace Paley (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2007)

31. Holding Still For As Long as Possible – Zoe Whittall (Anansi, 2009)

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

33. Trust No One – Paul Cleave (Upstart Press, 2015)

34. Everything was Good-Bye – Gurjinder Basran (Mother Tongue Publishing, 2010)

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

36. The Red Pony – John Steinbeck (Penguin Classics, 2009)

37. You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me – Sherman Alexie (Little, Brown and Company, 2017)

38. The Tennis Partner – Abraham Verghese (Harper Collins, 1998)

39. The Japanese Lover – Isabel Allende (Atria Paperback, 2015)

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

41. Autobiography – G.K. Chesterton (Hamish Hamilton, 1986)

42. The Lonely Hearts Hotel – Heather O’Neill (Harper Collins, 2017)

43. Stay With Me – Ayobami Adebayo (Knopf, 2017)

44. Meddling Kids – Edgar Cantero (Blumhouse Books, 2017)

45. Himself – Jess Kidd (Atria Books, 2017)

46. The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne (Hogarth, 2017)

47. The Bear and the Nightingale – Katherine Arden (Del Rey, 2017)

48. Teardown – Clea Young (Free Hand Books, 2017)

49. Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8 – Naoki Higashida

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

51. The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters: The Jolly Regina – Kara LaReau (Amulet Books, 2017)

52. The Good People – Hannah Kent (Little, Brown, 2017)

53. The Wind is not a River – Brian Payton (Ecco, 2014)

54. How to Breathe Underwater – Julie Orringer (Vintage, 2003)

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

56. Lost in September – Kathleen Winter (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2017)

57. Bellevue Square – Michael Redhill (Doubleday Canada, 2017)

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

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

60. Ghost Warning – Kara Stanley (Caitlin Press, 2017)

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

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

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

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

65. Beloved – Toni Morrison (Plume, 1998)

66. My Cousin Rachel – Daphne du Maurier (International Collectors Library, 1952)

67. Next Year For Sure – Zoey Leigh Peterson (Doubleday Canada, 2017)

68. See What Can Be Done – Lorrie Moore (Alfred A. Knopf, 2018)

69. Letters from Father Christmas – J.R.R. Tolkien (Harper Collins, 2015)

70. The Turn of the Screw and Other Short Novellas – Henry James (Signet Classic, 1962)

71. Late Nights on Air – Elizabeth Hay (Emblem, 2007)

72. The Whiz Mob and the Grenadine Kid – Colin Meloy (Balzer + Bray, 2017)

Books I Didn’t Finish:

The Travelers – Chris Pavone

Green Mansions – W.H. Hudson

Gork, the Teenage Dragon – Gabe Hudson

The Wonderling – Mira Bartok

The Beauty Myth – Naomi Wolf


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.


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.