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.

Advertisements

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: The Good People by Hannah Kent

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: The Golden House by Salman Rushdie

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

IMG_8042

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: 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.