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.

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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.

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: Lost in September by Kathleen Winter

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

“This book is so weird,” was my almost constant thought as I read Lost in September. It wasn’t until I was around three quarters of the way through that I felt I had a handle on what I was supposed to believe/see. Sometimes that made for a frustrating reading experience but overall, Winter handles it with charm and though I began the novel thinking I wouldn’t finish it, I found myself pushing through to find out what was going on.

While I’m not sure the names Wolfe and Montcalm are world renowned, you can’t make it through the Canadian school system without hearing them paired together, along with the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. This battle in Quebec between the French and the English determined the fate of Canada. Ie: why most of us speak English today.

Less known is that a few years before this monumental battle James Wolfe was scheduled to have eleven days leave from his army position. Unfortunately, his leave overlapped with a switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar and those eleven days were lost completely. Wolfe never got his longed for holiday and instead died on the Plains of Abraham.

Lost in September takes place in 2017, where every September Wolfe roams Montreal, heartbroken over what he has lost and searching to replace those eleven missing days. He meets a man dressed all in yellow who has recently regained his sight, a woman writing a book about James Wolfe, and he lives in a tent with a strange sort of guru who may or may not be helping him.

He unfolds for us his strange and co-dependent relationship with his mother, his intense friendships with the men he served with, and his very subdued love affair with his former fiancee. All while wandering through Montreal, wondering how it can still be so French when the English won the battle, and avoiding a visit to a certain Madam Blanchard. Surely, these are the ramblings of an insane man, right? There’s no way James Wolfe himself is spending September 2017 in Quebec.

The truth, while apparent throughout, is skillfully revealed and all possibilities are thrown into question. Wolfe (or Jimmy as he’s sometimes called) is an increasingly sympathetic character because whether he’s Wolfe come back to life or a mentally disturbed homeless man, Winter imbues him with glimmers of clarity and intelligence. Whatever has happened to him, this wasn’t always who he was and the reader longs for him to be restored to the life he should have had. After all, this is a book all about alternate realities.

While the story of Wolfe may be unfamiliar to non-Canadian readers, I think the story in and of itself here in Lost in September is strong enough to engage even those who might be new to the Battle of the Plains of Abraham or uninterested in history. Just be prepared, this book is so weird.

Book Review: The End We Start From by Megan Hunter

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

I wasn’t sure about reading this short novella, about a woman who has a baby as London is flooded and she is forced to flee her home, while at home with my own newborn baby. The good news is the book is not disturbing or upsetting. The bad news is it’s not much of anything.

There’s a very particular style that Hunter is using here and it doesn’t work for me. The whole book is so vague that it read like the outline of a novel that had yet to be written. There’s no dialogue, all of the characters are identified only by letters (a pet peeve of mine), and it seems like an exercise in defying the “show, don’t tell” rule. It’s all tell, no show.

The narrator and her husband R have become first time parents to Z. At the same time, unprecedented flooding hits London and they are forced to evacuate. They move in with R’s parents, N and G, and there are apparently food shortages and riots but the narrator and Z mostly just hang out at home. Then something happens and G is gone and then later something else happens and N is gone too. Seriously, that’s about as much information as we’re provided with.

From there, this little family spends time in a refugee camp and R leaves after a while because he can’t be, like, hemmed in, man and he has to be free. Or something like that. It’s hard to tell how much our narrator really cares.The story has zero character development and even though what’s being described is traumatic, the stakes are so low and I just cared so little because I felt like I couldn’t visualize what was taking place and I didn’t care about these characters.

The book is short (I read it in two late night nursing sessions) so not much of a time commitment. To be fair, there are glimmers of potential when Hunter actually bothers to describe things but it’s hard to say if there is much more there. I couldn’t tell you whether or not Hunter is good at creating characters or tension because none of it is present.

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?