Book Review: Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

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Stay with Me – Ayobami Adebayo (Knopf, 2017)

I really enjoyed this novel from first time author Ayobami Adebayo. Stay With Me is set in Nigeria, beginning in the early years of marriage between Yejide and Akin. They meet in university and have an instant connection. Despite polygamy being a common occurrence in Nigeria at this time, they agree that this will not be the case for their marriage. However, four years later and no children, their relationship is beginning to be strained, particularly by the pressure of Akin’s family. Until one day Akin secretly marries a second wife.

While the impetus for the unraveling of this relationship – polygamy – isn’t one that will be familiar to most Western readers, it really doesn’t matter in this well-crafted novel. What’s really at stake here is a marriage and the trust and intimacy that goes along with that. Adebayo beautifully captures the vulnerability that comes with betrayal in the relationship that we should expect to be safe1st within.

Also at the centre of this novel is motherhood, infertility, and loss. These made the book a hard and often emotional read for me and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear other parents find the same. Adebayo tiptoes along the edge of the unbelievable with some rather extraordinary events but the emotions at the centre of her characters’ choices remains honest and believable. It helps that in Yejide she creates a legimate character, a woman who is smart and independent and not reliant on the husband she loves, despite the society she lives within.

There are a few allusions to Nigerian politics and history throughout the novel and they, mostly, feel like asides and as though they could easily be removed from the book all together. That said, the political climate and turmoil is crucial to a key event in the novel toward the end. And while my knowledge of Nigerian history is sparse, it would probably feel strange to leave out any political references at all when the book is set during a time of upheaval.

 

Book Review: Teardown by Clea Young

My boss handed me a copy of Teardown after I detailed my weekend to her recently. Namely that, while in Vancouver, Peter and I went to IKEA with Pearl in tow. We hadn’t been since I was about seven months pregnant with Pearl and had looked forward to the visit. We smugly wandered through the living room furniture, the display kitchens, and the fake bedrooms before we hit meltdown in the children’s sections. (Pearl melted down and let’s just say things suddenly became more tense between my husband and I.)

“You have to read the first story in this book,” my boss told me. “Read it right now.” So I read it where I stood and then took the book home until my next shift. The first story is about a young couple, pregnant with their first child, who visit IKEA and have a pretty epic fight while doing so. (And seriously, there are a lot of pregnant women in IKEA! I had never noticed before.) This is the title story in Young’s collection and gives a great taste of what’s to come.

Young’s debut story collection is truly excellent, full of strong, honest narratives and realistic characters. Many of the stories focus on couples and many of those couples are considering children or are in the early years of parenthood so there was a lot I could relate to. The self-doubt, the exhaustion, the struggle to remain connected and passionate with your co-parent. So much here rang true and I loved Young’s barefaced honesty as she delved into the heart of relationships. We have high school sweethearts on a road trip after infidelity has been relieved. Or the young parents away for New Year’s Eve in Whistler who end up as the oldest people at a trendy night club. Or the recently displaced roommate who takes home the practise baby from the midwifery clinic where she works and things unravel strangely. Yet even when the characters are doing strange and unpredictable things, they feel understandable and sympathetic.

While the stories definitely sparked empathy in me due to where I currently am in life, I think they’re well-written and engaging enough for readers who haven’t experienced this stage of parenthood. They’re an easy length to read quickly and each one feels complete, while also making you eagerly want to jump into the next Young story.

Book Review: The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende

The Japanese Lover – Isabel Allende (Atria, 2015)

I’ve long been told that I should read Isabel Allende so I happily picked up this second hand copy at Powell’s Books when in Portland. The Japanese Lover wasn’t exactly what I expected but Allende didn’t disappoint. Her writing is effective, dense, and infinitely enjoyable.

Allende packs a lot into this book. The story encompasses a lot of 20th century history in the USA but does it without leaving the reader overwhelmed. She wisely assumes that her reader will have a basic knowledge of this history and so moves forward with the story.

We open with an unusual senior’s home in San Francisco, present day, where a young woman with a mysterious past has just been hired. Irina is originally from Moldova, raised in poverty by her grandparents; we know she’s running away from something but she seems happy for the first time at Lark House. There she begins an unusual friendship with Alma, an older, mostly independent and wealthy woman who has her own secrets in her past. Including the letters she regular receives from an unknown correspondent.

Allende slowly unfolds Alma’s history, from her privileged upbringing in Poland, interrupted by the growing threat of World War Two when a young Alma is sent to live with her aunt and uncle in San Francisco. There she develops two close friendships – her cousin, Nathaniel, and the gardener’s son, Ichimei. Before the war is over, however, Ichimei and his family are deported with the rest of the Japanese residents of the West Coast and spend the rest of the war in a prison camp.

Canada shares this shameful history with the US; thousands of Japanese, many of them citizens, were unfairly imprisoned and stripped of their homes, land, and jobs. While it’s something that’s slowly becoming more talked about, it’s still a part of our history that is often ignored or unknown. I have yet to read much fiction dealing with it, either American or Canadian. I don’t know enough about the historical facts of the prison camps in the USA to speak to Allende’s accuracy but I thought she did an excellent job of portraying how different members of Ichimei’s family dealt with what happened to them. His mother, father, older brothers, and older sister all have vastly different reactions and each of them feels authentic and honest. Allende also touches on some of the far-reaching effects that the imprisonment has on their family and others.

(In fact, the major historical inaccuracy that I noticed was that everyone in Alma’s family was so completely non-racist. While definitely making for a more uplifting story, it felt a little unrealistic that they were all so open-minded.)

Alma’s life story is balanced out by the present day storyline. The growing friendship between Alma and Irina is charming and interesting to read about. I was less interested in Irina’s relationship with Alma’s grandson, Seth, but it does do a decent job of showing the disparity of wealth and class divisions in present day America.

All in all, The Japanese Lover was a good introduction to Allende’s work and I will definitely look for more from her in the future.

Book Review: Autobiography by G.K. Chesterton

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

I’ve previously read Chesterton’s The Man Who was Thursday (review here), Orthodoxy, and some of his Father Brown mysteries and generally enjoyed Chesterton’s writing. So I thought it might be interesting to read his autobiography, first published in 1936.

Autobiography is, perhaps, a misleading title. What this book really is is a series of essays, loosely formulated around the timeline of Chesterton’s life. While he starts with his childhood and a few details about his life, that’s really not what the book is about. Chesterton does acknowledge this, telling the reader that he’s not one to keep track of dates and that if this is what you’re looking for, this isn’t the book for you. (Granted, this discussion takes place approximately two-thirds of the way through the book so the reader has likely already figured this out.) The book is not very personal – I’m not sure Chesterton even tells us his wife’s name. The closest he gets to personal revelation is when he talks about his brother who was killed in World War One.

What Chesterton tells us a lot about is British parliament and politics in the early 20th century. He mentions a few names I’d heard of before and a lot I hadn’t. While his insights into certain situations may have been fascinating to a contemporary reader – or a modern day reader with a yen for pre-war politics – I’m afraid much of it was lost on this 21st century Canadian. Those chapters dragged on and I came close to giving up on the book. I pushed through, waiting for the literary tales of Chesterton’s fellow authors. These had a cast of characters I was more familiar with.

Chesterton shares some entertaining tales of his close friend Hilaire Beloc, among others, and shares his background in newspapers and essay writing. These stories belie the stereotype of the stodgy Englishman and Chesterton’s writing is best when telling these hilarious tales.

I had hoped for more about his religious conversion and although there are glimmers throughout the book, Chesterton never tells the story in a straightforward manner. Perhaps he felt like he had written about it enough elsewhere. In the end, unless you’re a hardcore fan of Chesterton or immersed in British politics, I think you can give his Autobiography a pass. I do recommend Orthodoxy for readers wanting an introduction to Chesterton and his philosophies, particularly when it comes to Christianity.

Book Review: The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill

The Lonely Hearts Hotel – Heather O’Neill (HarperCollins Publishers, 2017)

I’ve read all of Heather O’Neill’s published work and reviewed two of them here. (Daydream of Angels  and Lullabies for Little Criminals) Obviously, I enjoy her work and thankfully her latest novel didn’t disappoint. If you like O’Neill’s previous work, then I think you’ll be pleased with The Lonely Hearts Hotel.

Using Montreal once again as her setting, this time O’Neill takes us to the early 20th century, beginning in the 1920s, post-World War I. I found the historic setting worked superbly for O’Neill’s style and characters. Her work always has a grubby yet fairy tale-like feel and the 1920s and 30s seems perfectly fitting for this.

The Lonely Hearts Hotel is the story of two orphans, called Pierrot and Rose. Both abandoned as infants, they are raised by nuns in the same Montreal orphanage. Both endure abuse (though of a vastly different kind) at the hands of the nuns yet it turns out that both Pierrot and Rose are hugely talented performers. They begin to perform in the homes of the Montreal wealthy and they form a powerful bond of love and partnership. Eventually separated, neither forgets that first and powerful love, or the dream they formed together of their own show and spectacle. When they are reunited, they quickly fall in love and work to make their dream a reality.

This story is dingy and magical. There is heroin addiction and prostitution, tragic clowns, a jewelled apple, and a complex web of characters who you can’t help but fall in love with. Pierrot and Rose make for an interesting couple at the heart of the novel. Rose in particular has a fascinating character arc and O’Neill uses the time frame well to demonstrate how a woman of Rose’s ambition suffered in a time when so little was allowed for women. Rose steadily develops into a woman of ruthless conquest, letting very little come in the way of her goals, and yet she manages to be sympathetic. I wanted to cheer for her simply because she had to work so hard to do even very little and to overcome the setbacks of her gender in that era. I think this is some of O’Neill’s best work yet and I hope she delves into the past more in her future work.

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: Gork, the Teenage Dragon by Gabe Hudson

Gork, the Teenage Dragon – Gabe Hudson (Knopf, 2017)

A couple of disclaimers first:

This book will be released on July 11th by Knopf. I got an Advanced Reading Copy, with no expectation of anything in return.

I did not finish reading this book. I made it to page 92/chapter 12 and gave up.

I knew I wasn’t the target audience of this novel. I don’t read much fantasy and I’m not into “quirky” books. I’m not necessarily against them but quirkiness alone is not enough to hold me. That said, I’m open to new things and the blurbs compared it to Harry Potter and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Plus, it’s about dragons and I loved The Hobbit as a kid.

In the first chapter, our narrator insults Tolkien and The Hobbit in particular, so we we didn’t get off to a great start.

This book is about very advanced dragons. They travel in spaceships, conquering other planets with their advanced technology and fearsome dragon might. Our narrator is Gork, who is sixteen, a recent graduate of Warwings Academy and not a particularly impressive specimen of dragonhood.

So here’s what bugged me about this book and why I gave up on it:

  • There’s so much information thrown at you. Gork knows his reader is potentially unfamiliar with the dragon world and lifestyle so he just tosses out jargon and explanation, one after the other, with no attempt to really craft it into a story. Since the blurb compares it to Harry Potter, I couldn’t help make that comparison in the negative. J.K. Rowling did some amazing world-building but one of the smart things she did is she told the story through Harry’s eyes. And Harry was also a newcomer to the wizarding world and so the information and names and timelines were slowly introduced to the reader. Gork reads more like the author came up with a bunch of stuff he thought sounded cool and wanted to add it all in. In the first 92 pages we are told about nanorobots, AI technology, alternate dimensions, time travel, future prophecies, teleportation…just to name a few. And through all of this, Gork isn’t really even doing anything. He’s in a space ship (sentient, somehow) with his best friend (who is a dragon robot), just spewing facts at us.
  • I became increasingly bothered by the sexism of the storyline. Upon graduating from Warwings Academy, Gork must ask a female dragon to be his queen. When she accepts, they’ll jet off into space together, she’ll lay eggs, and then they’ll find a new planet to conquer. Gork has his sights set on Runcita, who is clearly out of his league. If she says no, then he has to be a slave forever. Primarily, this seems like a really dumb way to run a society. That’s a lot of pressure at sixteen-years-old. Especially when, as Gork tells us, dragons can live hundreds of years. It also doesn’t explain how their home planet functions if only slaves get left behind but maybe that’s expanded on later on. My problem was the way Gork focuses on Runcita as purely an object. A thing with which to advance his own life and to satisfy his physical urges. Yes, he’s a teenage male; yes, they’re dragons. But they’re also obviously intelligent and Gork is narrating this from the future. The more he talked, the more I disliked him. (Also, would dragons really have nipples?)
  • Which brings me to my final point: Gork is really unlikeable. He’s a bad narrator, he’s sexist and violent (ok, again, dragon) and his motivations are unclear. I wasn’t rooting for him and I didn’t care what happened to him. So I stopped reading.

There may be a lot of people out there who like this book. Perhaps readers who delve into fantasy/science fiction more often than me will find this book as funny as it thinks itself to be. I wanted to like it, given its entirely unique premise but there just wasn’t enough there for me.

Book Review: The Tennis Partner by Abraham Verghese

The Tennis Partner – Abraham Verghese (HarperCollins, 1998)

After a somewhat awkward incident of an acquaintance thinking I’d borrowed his copy of The Tennis Partner almost ten years ago and never returned it, I decided to take it as a sign and actually read the book. (I got it from the library, however.)

Having read Cutting for Stone last year, I already knew Verghese as a talented writer and a medical doctor in his daily life.The books are, of course, very different. While Cutting for Stone is a novel, The Tennis Partner is the true story of Verghese’s friendship with another doctor named David Smith.

In the mid-1990s, Verghese and his family move to El Paso, Texas where he works in internal medicine. I found the setting of El Paso, a city I’m entirely unfamiliar with, to be fascinating. A town bordering Mexico, Verghese manages to show us a city both beautiful and dangerous. Barren but with hidden corners of bounty. Verghese’s work introduces him to many victims of AIDS and drug abuse but he doesn’t immediately recognize his colleague as a drug user.

Smith and Verghese are drawn together by a love of tennis. Smith, an Australian, travelled on the pro circuit while Verghese has simply had a life long obsession with the sport. They find that they make good partners on the court and a friendship springs up. While Verghese navigates through a divorce from his wife, Smith gradually reveals his past addiction and how he has had to start over. While clean at the beginning of the book, it’s clear that there are unresolved issues for Smith, particularly in his relationships with women.

As close as the two men become, Verghese is always slightly removed from Smith’s inner life, often not knowing exactly what’s happening to his friend. At times he seems to have a sort of willful blindness, though it’s not hard to sympathize with someone who wants to see the best in a person he cares about. Verghese is extremely knowledgeable about the mechanics of addiction and drug use, as demonstrated by his work with his patients, and yet baffled by the mental struggle behind addiction. In fact, he comes across rather callously in one section, after Smith has returned from rehab. At times, it seems that Verghese’s concern is more with losing his tennis partner than with what’s best for his friend.

Overall though, the book is a moving and intimate portrayal of medical work and friendship. As with Cutting for Stone, I found that sometimes the medical descriptions delved too deep and, while interesting, left me feeling nauseous. Perhaps readers with stronger stomachs will do better. In a similar manner, there is a lot of detail about tennis in the book. As someone who has never held a tennis racquet in my life, I just didn’t care and found myself skipping over many of these sections, which didn’t detract from the story itself.

Book Review: Everything Was Good-Bye by Gurjinder Basran

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

For most of high school, I lived within walking distance of a Sikh temple in East Vancouver. A lot of my friends were Punjabi and so while there’s still a lot I don’t know about Sikh culture, I’d say I’m fairly familiar with it over all. So I was excited to read Basran’s novel of a young Sikh girl growing up in Delta (a suburb of Vancouver).

Meena is the youngest of six daughters, raised by their widowed mother, and growing up in the often restrictive confines of traditional Sikh culture. While one sister has bucked tradition and run away, Meena’s older sisters have each ended up in arranged marriages and while Meena doesn’t particularly want this, she feels trapped by the expectations of her family. She’s isolated in her school as a minority and befriends Liam, a white boy who is an outcast for other reasons. Their relationship is awkward, halting, and very believable, with all the uncomfortableness and confusion of teenage romance.

I don’t Delta very well but I do know that outside of India, the Vancouver area has the largest Sikh population in the world. So I did find Meena’s isolation a little false. I find it hard to believe that she would be the only Punjabi girl in her school and wouldn’t at least be able to make friends within her own cultural community. It ends up feeling like the author is trying to force her friendship with Liam a little too hard but unnecessarily isolating Meena.

I did really enjoy the first section of the book, while Meena is still in school, trying to figure out how she feels about Liam, what her future will be, and watching the last of her sisters move into marriage. The novel then hops forward in time by several years to Meena in her early twenties. She’s finished university (which we didn’t get to see at all and I think was a missed opportunity), working but still very isolated as she lives with her mother, and being pushed toward her own arranged marriage.

There’s one more jump in time and Meena’s life changes drastically. This change felt realistic, following on what we know about Meena and what she’s narrated to us, as well as what’s come before. The ending, however, felt emotionally manipulative. Aside from being pretty unrealistic, it felt like the author keeping a happy ending from Meena for the sake of avoiding a happy ending.

The setting is great and familiar to readers who know Vancouver and its surroundings and the cultural details are authentic and interesting. Basran doesn’t drown us with them but throws them in as needed and they add to a world that feels genuine and fascinating. Some of it felt familiar to me and others were things I learned for the first time. I haven’t come across a lot of Indo-Canadian writing so I look forward to seeing more from Basran.

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.