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.

 

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What I Read – July 2017

Woefully lately but in the interests of keeping track (for myself because I’m sure no one has been waiting with baited breath), here is what I read in July:

The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill (Harper Collins Publishers, 2017)

Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo (Knopf, 2017)

Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero (Blumhouse Books, 2017)

Himself by Jess Kidd (Atria Books, 2017)

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne (Hogarth, 2017)7

What I Read – June 2017

This felt like kind of a strange reading month for me. I started off by reading Alexie’s memoir and Verghese’ back-to-back, while also working my way through Chesterton’s autobiography. While I enjoyed each one, it also felt like a lot of male experiences and I was itching for some feminine perspective to balance it out. Something that hasn’t really happened to me before. I was eager to read Allende, an author I’ve also heard highly of but haven’t read before. A ferry ride and a night away on my own was the perfect opportunity. Then some Agatha Christie and I was ready to finish tackling Chesterton (reviews to come).

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

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

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

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

Re-Read:

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

Didn’t Finish:

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

Currently Reading:

The Lonely Hearts Hotel – Heather O’Neill

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.

What I Read – July 2015

Ten Thousand Lovers – Edeet Ravel (Review Books, 2003)

This was a well-written, interesting, and engaging read. The characters are believable and fascinating. It’s easy to imagine that their lives began and continue before and after we meet them in the action of this novel. Set in Israel in the 1970s, Ten Thousand Lovers, tells the story of Lily, a young Canadian Jew studying in Jerusalem as she meets an Israeli man, Ami, and learns to see Israel with new eyes. Ravel does well at building a subtle sort of tension throughout the novel. It’s hard to put your finger on but you know things went end well here. Of course, this is aided by the general and historical tension of Palestine-Israel conflict. This is a story of grey zones, of questionable morality and that ever unanswerable question: Do the ends justify the means?

Many Dimensions – Charles Williams (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1970)

If you will believe this way, then I also will believe. And we will set ourselves against the world, the flesh, and the devil.”

It’s fairly well known that C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were members of a writer’s group called the Inklings. But I doubt that very many people could name the rest of the group’s members. I certainly can’t although now I at least know three of them. The third is Charles Williams.a

Like Lewis and Tolkien, Williams’ novel delves into the fantastical and the religious. Unlike the other two Inklings, Williams grounds his story in the real world of modern day (for him if not for us currently) England. One of our main characters is Chief Justice. There are questions of international relations and economic trade. All of it surrounding the Crown of Suleiman (more commonly known as Solomon). This crown bears a stone that enables one to travel through space, time, and thought. Many dimensions, indeed. And, crucially, the stone can be divided without any lessening of its power.

Williams skillfully sets up the forces of good, evil, and ignorance (perhaps equally dangerous). This is a story of right and wrong and the grey areas that those inhabit. Parts of it read like it could be an Indiana Jones adventure. Other parts delve into more esoteric ideas. The story is rather old-fashioned but readable. While it’s clear who the good guys are, there are still some big moral questions left unanswered and I think that’s how it should be. The ending is strange and a little unsatisfying (definitely not an Indian Jones-style ending) but fits with this strange novel. If you’re a fan of Lewis’s science fiction trilogy or Tolkien’s Leaf and Tree, I think you’d enjoy this novel too.

A Star Called Henry – Roddy Doyle (Vintage Canada, 2000)

I looked for a man with lovely eyes on Custom House Quay and found a fat dwarf standing on a chair and shouting out names over the heads of the dockers who waited at the quay wall.

Crude, strong, violent, handsome. This is Henry Star the second or the third, depending on whether or not you count his dead brother. Using his fists, his good looks, and his father’s wooden leg, Henry is fighting his way through early 20th century Dublin. He’s a Fenian, a cop-killer, a soldier of the streets, and an utterly unique character.

He’s also not as charming as he thinks he is. Henry is our narrator and so I started to disbelieve him when he kept reminding me of how good-looking and strong he was. He seems to get away with a lot and women seem to be willing to do a lot and put up with a lot for him. I can’t help but think that Henry Smart is very much a character written by a man.

Mostly though, this is a sad book. About a young man who has always been on his own. Who has lost or will lose every person close to him. A person who knows nothing but poverty and filth and is fighting for a society that will never offer him anything more.

Parrot & Olivier in America by Peter Carey (Knopf, 2009)

As much as I didn’t enjoy Peter Carey’s short story collection, I love his novels. They are colourful, peopled with fascinating characters, full of depth, and a little absurd. The majority of them, as is this one, are historical. Parrot & Olivier begins in France, set during the Revolution. Olivier is a French nobleman, his family caught amid the turmoil of rebellion, their entire way of life changing. He is a bit foppish and very naive. Against his will he is sent to America for his own protection, accompanied by a servant called Parrot. Parrot is about fifty, English by birth but has lived many lives by the time he arrives in America with Olivier. The novel alternates chapters between these two very different characters, with very different voices (which Carey excels at), as they tell their own story and the story of their strange, growing friendship.

It’s an American story, really. About the changing attitudes of society, of nobility and the growing middle class, of a land where any person, at any time, can change the course of their life.

Sointula – Bill Gaston (Raincoast Books, 2005)

Vancouver Island is the farthest west a body can go. Hop a boat from here farther west and somewhere at sea you sail through the looking glass and you are east. So Vancouver Island is it. Where all young men stopped going west, but only because they had to. Everyman’s wanderlust stymied.

I think I’ve mentioned before that I generally enjoy Gaston’s short stories more than his novels. The novel of his that I’ve enjoyed the most was his most recent one, The World. Sointula holds some key factors in common.

We have a befuddled, divorced, middle aged man who sets off on an ill-advised journey, an old friend who is dying, a journey across some part of Canada. Like The World, I found the impulsive decisions that these characters made to be very stressful. Evelyn has flown across country – Oakville, Ontario to Victoria, British Columbia – to be with her first love, Claude, as he dies. She’s gone suddenly off her anti-depressant meds and starts living on the beach until she decides she’s going to head up-island and track down the son she hasn’t seen in ten years, Tom. And she’s going to get there by kayak.

I lived in Victoria for seven years. I know the beach that Evelyn camps on and I’ve been to a few spots on Vancouver Island. It’s a big island. She knows that Tom is tracking orca movement in Sointula, on Malcolm Island. It’s really far away from Victoria.

Along her way, Evelyn meets Peter Gore, a British-American trying to write a book about Vancouver Island while fighting a losing battle with his gall bladder and drinking himself into gout. (I found this guy nothing  but annoying and I think he could have been cut out of the novel without much being lost.) They join forces and start kayaking to Sointula, a one-time utopia started by a group of Finns and a charismatic leader. I spent most of their journey wondering how many months it was going to take and thinking about how much faster it would be to drive.

Fortunately, the big is well-written, as everything by Gaston is. The characters aren’t likeable but they do have a lot of depth. The descriptions of place are spot-on and Gaston captures a lot of Vancouver Island and what makes it unique. There’s lots of history and nature tied in that I found interesting.

The Red Notebook – Antoine Laurain (Gallic Books, 2015)

(translated from French by Emily Boyce and Janice Aitken)

This was a sweet and breezy little novel. A bookseller in Paris finds a woman’s purse – abandoned after a mugging – and pieces together the clues inside to discover who this woman is and to find her. There aren’t many surprises her but the descriptions are strong and the characters are likeable. There are some nice references to French authors and literature as well. (I confess I only learnt who Patrick Modiano is when he won the Nobel Prize.)

I had hoped that the story might use its Paris setting more but, aside from an encounter in Luxembourg Garden, the book could really be set in any city in the world. All in all though, an easy weekend read.

Confessions – St. Augustine (J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1949)

(translated from Latin by E.B. Pusey)

Press on where truth begins to dawn.

Finally! I read the whole thing! I can’t even remember when I started this book but I’m pretty sure it was before Pearl was born. While I obviously read a translation, I think I might have been able to get through it faster if I had had a more up-to-date version. My copy is a beautiful cloth bound Everyman’s Library edition but the English was quite old-fashioned. Also, this wasn’t a great choice to read while up in the middle of the night and trying to stay awake while nursing. What finally got me through it was reading it out loud. That made me really slow down to understand what I read. I think Pearl enjoyed it too.

And Thou, O Lord, art my comfort, my Father everlasting, but I have been severed amid times, where order I know not, and my thoughts, even the inmost bowls of my soul, are rent and mangled with tumultous varieties, until I flow together into Thee, purified and molten by the fire of Thy love.

Confessions is a classic of the Christian church. It’s one of the earliest personal memoirs and it’s frankly quite amazing to read something written so long ago that still resonates. Augustine’s doubts, fears, and joys are all emotions believers today will recognize.

But let me be united in Thee, O Lord, with those, and delight myself in Thee, with them that feed on Thy truth, in the largeness of charity, and let us approach together unto the words of Thy book, and seek in them for Thy meaning, through the meaning of Thy servant, by whose pen Thou hast dispensed them.

Currently Reading:

Half of a Yellow Sun – Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie

 

Check back tomorrow for what Pearl and I have been reading together this month. (You know, aside from Confessions.)

What I Read – April 2015

The First Person and Other Stories by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton, 2008)

I once tried to read a novel by Ali Smith, lost interest part way in and returned it unfinished to the library. I did finish reading this short story collection but now, less than a month later, can’t remember much about it. I wanted to give Smith another try since her latest novel has gotten a lot of buzz but her writing just doesn’t grab me. This short story collection plays around a lot with narration and the art of storytelling but the stories didn’t stick with me or grab me in any meaningful way.

The Assassin’s Song by M.G. Vassanji (Knopf, 2007)

It took me a long time to get into this novel. It was probably not until two-thirds into the novel that I felt really excited to know what would happen next. I can’t say if this is a fault of the writing or on my part since I was constantly getting interrupted while reading it. It was different than any other book about India that I’ve read and I did enjoy what it showed of Indian history and religion. The “big reveal” at the end of the novel was disappointing (and pretty obvious) and, I thought, added very little to the story. I liked the back and forth between the 13th century history and the 20th and thought Vassanji wove mythology and history together well.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

This was obviously a re-read for me. While Pearl has many board books and I do read them to her, at her young age, the thing she enjoys most is simply hearing my voice and being held. So I figured I’d read her something more enjoyable for me. At least until she’s a little older. So we’ve started in on The Chronicles of Narnia.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (Random House, 2010)

I greatly enjoyed this book. I’ve read three books by David Mitchell now and each one has been superbly written. The Thousand Autumns plays with format and timelines less than Cloud Atlas or The Bone Clocks. Mitchell does do well with alternating narrators though and through multiple characters tells a compelling story of a time and place in history that I was very unfamiliar with – Dutch trade in Japan during the late 18th century. While Japan was extremely closed off to the rest of the world during this time period, a few foreign traders were allowed onto a small island called Deshima. Mitchell uses this setting to explore ideas of foreignness, home, and imprisonment. I appreciated how he told the story from a Dutch and Japanese perspective, giving weight to both sides and demonstrating both how similar and different humans can be. The story does veer towards the unbearably creepy at one point with a hint of the fantastical that Mitchell uses in his other novels but this one’s definitely a historical novel rather than a fantasy one.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver (Vintage Books Edition, 1989)

I’d read a few of these short stories before – it’s hard to get out of any sort of University literature-related degree without reading the title story from this collection. Carver is one of those writers that I appreciate but when I sit down and read a whole body of his work, I find him very bleak. (I have the same problem with Alice Munro, actually.) These are stories of dying love, relationships ended. Carver’s style is very spare, rather stark. I found myself reminded occasionally of Hemingway, though I think Hemingway does description much better.

Small Island by Andrea Levy (Review, 2004)

This book suffers from a front cover problem. By which I mean the front cover has never appealed to me, to the point of putting me off from reading the novel for years. (I know, you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover but, let’s face it, we all do.) Fortunately for me, I finally looked past the boring cover and read the book. The main action of the novel takes place in London, in 1948, amidst the changing norms and social constructs of a post-war nation. There are also substantial flashbacks – before the war in both England and Jamaica, and some scenes set during World War II, both in England and overseas. Levy does an excellent job of maintaining third person narration while moving between characters. Voice is also terrific as she captures the sounds of Jamaican English. (There’s a continuing theme of Jamaican characters not being understood by the English that heartbreakingly captures the struggle of immigrants.) This is a book about race but it’s also about longing, a search for something bigger, and about ignorance – both chosen and accidental.

Currently Reading:

The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Prince Caspian by C.S. Lewis

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

What I Read – January 2015

Since weekly book reviews seem to be something I can’t accomplish right now, I thought I’d post mini-reviews of everything I read this past month. January’s been busy but I managed to squeeze in a fair amount of reading and finished 9 books.

The Birth House – Ami McKay (Vintage Canada, 2006)

I did write a more in-depth review of this one but short version: I liked it. A little heavy on the wonders of midwifery (in my hospital-birth-bound opinion) but also very well-written and enjoyable to read. And a good reminder to me that women have been doing this giving birth thing for eons and it mostly goes okay.

The Doc’s Side – Eric Paetkau (Harbour Publishing, 2011)

This is a very local history of a doctor here on the Sunshine Coast. Dr. Paetkau was one of the early medical professionals in our part of the world, back when the hospital was still up in Pender Harbour. He tells a lot of stories of treating the loggers and fishers and local people, as well as how the hospital came to be moved to Sechelt and the expanse of medical care on the Coast. There’s a fair bit of his personal story in there too. Probably a book that is most interesting to locals who will recognize the places (and maybe some of the people!)

 

Ella Minnow Pea – Mark Dunn (Anchor Books, 2001)

This is a fun, semi-experimental novel. Ella Minnow Pea leaves in a fictional country where language is more important than ever and the man who wrote the sentence The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy sleeping dog is worshiped like an idol. That quickly begins to backfire as letters begin to fall from his monument and the council declares every fallen letter illegal to use. The novel is told in a series of letters, mostly between Ella and her cousin. As the story progresses, the forbidden letters are dropped from the text and the language becomes more complicated. Fortunately, the story ends around the time this becomes truly annoying to read. It’s a nice little fairy tale though, at times, the conceit overcomes the story.

A Million Little Pieces – James Frey (Anchor Books, 2003)

I know I’m about a decade behind on this one but I finally wanted to see what all the controversy was about. Knowing that parts of this memoir were fictional, it seemed to me to highlight the fact that the book is not that great. While it may be a great look at the depths of addiction (something I’m not very familiar with, so I can’t speak to its accuracy or honesty) I didn’t find the book very well-written. It’s quite repetitive and its lack of punctuation makes dialogue difficult to follow. To be completely honest, I read about the first third and then skipped to the last two chapters to see how it ended. I don’t think I missed much.

 

Great Expectations – edited by Dede Crane and Lisa Moore (House of Anansi Press, 2008)

First off, I hate the name of this story collection. Don’t take the title of a book more famous than yours.

I picked this one off the library shelf, thinking how cheesy collections of pregnancy and birth stories are, but then was impressed by its list of contributors. It includes Caroline Adderson, Joseph Boyden, Lynn Coady, and twenty-one others. Each writer tells of their own experience of becoming a parent. The stories are raw, honest, sometimes terrifying, and often beautiful. I really liked that they included the stories of fathers too. Bill Gaston and Dede Crane (married with four kids in real life) tell their tales back-to-back and I found the similarities and contrasts of their shared experience fascinating. Admittedly, I’m more interested in birth and pregnancy right now than I normally am so this might not be a book for everyone. But for an expectant mother or father who also enjoys some good writing, it’s pretty great.

The Mistress of Nothing – Kate Pullinger (McArthur & Company, 2009)

I was never particularly grabbed by this one but it was big a few years ago so I figured it was time I read it. And I enjoyed it quite a bit more than I thought I would. Based (sort of) on a true story – based on real people, at least – we follow a lady’s maid from England to Egypt and into a life she never imagined. The setting is wonderfully evoked and both Sally (the maid) and Lady Duff Gordon (her mistress) are fascinating women who are wonderful to read about. Both buck against society’s expectations in very different, very far-reaching ways.

Among the Ten Thousand Things – Julie Pierpont (Random House, 2015)

Honestly, I saw this title on my list and it took me a second to remember what book this was. This was an ARC I got through work; the book comes out this July. I was grabbed by the good reviews and an interesting synopsis and brought it home. The story is easily readable, if slightly predictable. The first chapter – a letter from a mistress to a wife – got my attention right away. As did the second chapter, where that letter is intercepted by the 11-year-old daughter of the wife and the unfaithful husband. Overall, I think the plot portrays a pretty honest fallout of infidelity and divorce. There’s a lot hinted at about the husband and father’s personality – he’s an artist and his most recent exhibition has exploded (literally) – but he isn’t fleshed out as much as he could be. I thought the most impressive part of the novel came in the middle when we get a brief but well-sketched glimpse of what the future could be.

The World Before Us – Aislinn Hunter (Doubleday Canada, 2014)

I’d been wanting to read this one for a while and it didn’t let me down. The story follows Jane, who is about to lose her job at a museum that is going out of business and is experiencing some sort of mental break (perhaps). Less because of her job loss and more because of an encounter with the father of a little girl who disappeared years before, while Jane was babysitting. The story intersects with the disappearance of an unnamed woman from an asylum in the same area years before. The narration is definitely the most unique aspect of this novel; it is told from the perspective of what you might call spirits who follow Jane around, hoping to discover who they are. Or were. While they start the novel as a fairly homogenous “we”, as the story progresses – and as we learn more about both of these disappearances – individual characters and histories begin to emerge. It’s a bold narrative experiment and Hunter does it well. While there are two mysteries at the centre of this story, it isn’t a mystery novel and there are no simple answers here. And that is to the novel’s benefit.

Walking with God through Pain and Suffering – Timothy Keller (Dutton, 2013)

Timothy Keller is probably my favourite modern day theologian. This was the fourth book from him that I’ve read and I am consistently impressed by both his knowledge and his practicality. I read this book slowly over several months. Not because it’s a difficult read but because there was so much in it that I wanted to slowly absorb. Keller speaks about suffering and sorrow both from a more detached point of view and from a personal one. He examines what suffering means, how our society reacts to it, how the Bible talks about it, and how Christians can deal with it. There’s a lot of good stuff in here. If you’ve experienced suffering (and if you’re human, you probably have) then you could find a great deal of comfort and assurance here.

Amnesia – Peter Carey (Knopf, 2015)

I really like Peter Carey’s books. I’ve read several and he’s a talented writer. He’s won the Booker Prize twice, so I’m certainly not alone in this opinion. I was excited to learn he had a book coming out this year and eagerly took the ARC that came my way. That said, I didn’t love Amnesia. Perhaps it was the unlikeable main character of Felix Moore. Perhaps it was the overabundance of computer/hacker talk. (Admittedly, much of it was over my head since I’m certainly not a computer person, but a lot of it reminded me of hackers in movies in the early 90s when characters could basically do anything and the answer was “hacking”.) Another problem was that most of the action of the novel takes place in the place and Felix is learning about it. Yes, there is some present-time action around Felix but I found it confusing and not particularly tense. I was never worried about Felix’s safety or his ultimate success. I don’t know if that’s because Carey didn’t do enough to build that tension or if it was just because I didn’t care much what happened to Felix.

Currently reading:

Daddy Lenin – Guy Vanderhaeghe

The Cost of Discipleship – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Join me at the end of February* to read mini reviews of these and whatever else I manage to squeeze into the month.

*May not be precisely at the end of February because I’m due to give birth to a human child on or around March 1st.

Book Review – The Confabulist by Steven Galloway

I’ll admit that I’ve never quite gotten the fuss over Houdini. Does there really need to be another book about him? That said, having enjoyed both The Cellist of Sarajevo and Ascension by Steven Galloway, I gave The Confabulist (Knopf Canada, 2014) a shot and I’m glad I did.

The Confabulist contains stories within stories. We meet our narrator, Martin Strauss, in present day where he is given a final, unhappy diagnosis by his doctor. Martin is losing his memory and it will soon by gone entirely, replaced with artificial memories. Moments that will seem completely real to Martin will never have actually occurred.

And so, he tells us his story. The day he met Harry Houdini and the day he killed Houdini.

Making up the bulk of the novel is Houdini’s story. His rise to fame, his wife, his mother, his travels, his efforts to debunk spiritualists and mediums. Everything that leads him to the day he met Martin Strauss, as told to us by Martin.

This is key, of course. Houdini’s story is inter-spliced with Martin’s, both in the present day and Martin in 1927, following Houdini’s death. In the ’20s, Martin was a poor young student in Montreal. He drank a little more than he should have, he was fascinated by magicians, and he loved a girl named Clara. Then he kills Houdini and his whole life changes. Throughout the novel, this moment is set-up as the turning point of Martin’s life, the reason everything happens next. But our glimpses at Martin’s life in the present day cause the reader to increasingly doubt the accuracy of Martin’s memories. Is what he tells of Houdin’s life true? Did he really kill Houdini? Who is Alice? A simple history becomes a mystery story and a message on the frailty of human memory.

Galloway tells the story of Houdini’s life, wrapping fact and fiction together artfully. We watch Houdini’s development as both a magician and a man. His rise to fame, some of his most famous escapes and tricks, and his backroom dealings. Out of a real life person, Galloway creates a character with depth and emotion until I didn’t much care what was truth and what was fiction. We witness Houdini’s constant desire to please his mother. His combined love and frustration for his wife, Bess. His moral struggle with tricks that prey on the griefs and fears of others and his subsequent vehement attempts to discredit and ban spiritualism.

These attempts becomes central to the plot of the novel, bringing characters together in a web of secrets and deceits. This was a struggle that Houdini really did engage in, at a time when mediums often held a lot of power, through the manipulation of those in authority. We witness Houdini’s dealings with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the Romanov family, and Margery Crandon, the witch of Beacon Hill. Into these historical encounters, Galloway weaves a fictional account that becomes surprisingly convincing, until the reader can’t be sure what’s true and what’s made up. Which is precisely where Martin Strauss’ memory has brought him.

In the end, despite turning up my nose at another Houdini story, I found the Houdini sections of the novel more interesting than Martin’s. Houdini’s story takes us all over the world, into secrets gatherings and behind the curtain of some of the most famous magic tricks. It isn’t until further into the novel that the clues of Martin’s life begin to come together to reveal an entirely different secret.

I was spellbound.

Book Review – I Am The Messenger by Markus Zusak

Having previously read The Book Thief, I should have suspected that Markus Zusak is not a straightforward novel writer. Yet the conclusion of I Am The Messenger (Knopf, 2005) still came as a surprise to me.

Ed Kennedy is a nineteen-year-old cabdriver. He’s from the rough side of town and he’s on the right track to go nowhere in life. He plays cards with his friends Marv, Ritchie, and Audrey (who he’s in love with) and he hangs out with his smelly dog, The Doorman. He’s about to be another nobody in a town full of nobodies.

The novel begins in the middle of a bank robbery which Ed, almost inadvertently, foils. He has a brief stint of local fame, testifies in court, and goes back to his mediocre life.

Except, someone’s taken notice of Ed now. A playing card, an ace, arrives at Ed’s door; a cryptic message that sets Ed on a mission. He doesn’t know who wants him to deliver these messages or why, only that he has to. And that being the messenger is quickly changing his life.

I loved the creativity of this novel. Ed’s missions are each unique. Some are funny, some are horrifying, some are lovely, and some are frustrating. Almost all are reminders that the smallest action might change a life.

The language of the novel is great, particularly the dialogue between Ed and his friends. Their voices evoke the low income backgrounds they come from and seem to be trapped in. It’s a unique dialect that grounds the novel in reality

The mystery of what the next message will be and who is behind them pushes the action forward well and Zusak does a terrific job of maintaining that tension throughout.

There is, however, a particular style he uses through the novel that started to drive me crazy. Short sentences, lots of paragraph breaks, lots of repetition. Since the story is told from Ed’s point of view, perhaps it was an attempt to show his thought process.

To get inside his head.

Show how a guy like Ed thinks.

See how this works?

Doesn’t it get annoying?

It reminds me of sensationalist magazine articles and it felt overly dramatic and like a space-filler in a book that is really not that long. Zusak is a better writer than that.

And the ending. At first, I was only surprised and, truth be told, a little impressed at the statement Zusak makes with his conclusion. But the more I thought about it, the more annoyed I grew and the more it felt like a cop-out. (“It was all a dream!” That kind of cop-out, although that is obviously not the ending.) The more I wanted the novel to end before Ed returns to his house that final time. I wanted the novel to finish on its own terms, true to its own world and that’s not the ending Zusak gives.

Nevertheless, it does offer plenty to think about and that’s a good thing in any story.

Book Review – News of a Kidnapping by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Gabriel Garcia Marquez is undoubtedly best known for his beautiful “magic realism” prose. In novels like Love in the Time of Cholera or The General in his Labyrinth, Marquez masterfully joins fiction and fancy so that it becomes beautifully impossible to tell what’s based in reality and what is not. Even his personal memoir, Living to Tell the Tale, has this flavour of the supernatural or the surreal as fanciful details from One Hundred Years of Solitude turn out to be based on Marquez’ own childhood.

News of a Kidnapping is distinctly different from any other Marquez work I’ve read. Not just because it’s based on fact – Living to Tell the Tale is also based on fact. News of a Kidnapping is, to use Marquez’ own title, a news story.

It’s not hard to imagine why Marquez might have wanted to tell this factual account of drug cartels and kidnapping in Colombia, the country of his birth. When many people think of Colombia, drug cartels and kidnappings are the first things that come to mind. Marquez doesn’t set out to dispel any myths but simply to tell the reader what occurred and, perhaps, cast a new light on Colombia at the end of the 20th century.

News of a Kidnapping focuses on the kidnapping in the early 90s of several prominent men and women – many of them journalists – in Columbia by a drug cartel, the hands and feet of a shadowy figure called Pablo Escobar.

Due to a North American “war on drugs”, Pablo Escobar and a group of criminals known as “the Extraditables” are doing whatever they think it takes to avoid extradition to the United States. By kidnapping these men and women, they hope to force the hand of the Colombian government and negotiate a safe – and hopefully luxurious – arrest and imprisonment within Colombia.

The story takes us between the various hostages – some alone, some imprisoned with others, some unaware that anyone else has been kidnapped, some already thought to be dead – and their families who work tirelessly (sometimes with the government, sometimes not) to obtain their freedom. This isn’t a Hollywood movie. There are no easy answers and Marquez doesn’t offer an opinion on how things should go or should have been handled. The narrative maintains an air of impartiality. A news report. Each person’s motives are understandable. It’s easy to feel sympathy for the spouses and parents of the kidnapped victims and, yet, it’s also understood how important it is to not give in to all of Escobar’s demands. This is real life and the answers aren’t always easy.

I’ll be honest – I learnt a lot by reading News of a Kidnapping and I saw Colombia in a way I haven’t before. That said, it wasn’t my favourite Marquez work. It lacked, well, magic. Perhaps it was simply that I didn’t really know what I was getting into. The book is well-written and informative. If you want to learn more about Colombia in the early 1990s, this would be a great read. If you love The Autumn of the Patriarch and want to read more by that author, well, this might not be for you.

Being fairly ignorant about Colombia in general, I can’t speak to the complete accuracy of News of a Kidnapping. I did wonder at certain points in the narrative if a more positive perspective was being shown than reality. Particularly, instances of extreme police brutality are alluded to but never really dealt with in the book. That seemed to me like it must have been a bigger issue in reality. Overall, the Colombian government comes across as pretty good – wise and largely effective, if plagued by violence and assassinations. That’s not been my general impression of Colombia so I’m not sure if News of a Kidnapping is telling the truth or if Marquez didn’t want to delve into the real political problems of his country.

(The book I read was translated from the original Spanish by Edith Grossman and published in 1997 by Knopf.)