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.

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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

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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: 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: You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie

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

If you’ve read Sherman Alexie’s work before, particularly The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (which I reviewed here) then you likely know a bit of Alexie’s story already. His writing is infused with his own life experiences, particularly growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation.

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me gets even more intimate as he delves into his childhood, his family, and his relationship with his mother, who died in 2015. It’s complicated, loving, and often sad. Near the beginning of the book Alexie details the story of the night his mother stopped drinking and credits that decision with saving his and his siblings’ lives. His mother paid the bills, kept them fed, and protected them within the volatile environment of the reservation and a loving but alcoholic family. At the same time, she could also be cruel, vindictive, and an awful lawyer. Alike in many ways, Alexie and his mother were often at odds and went years without speaking to each other.

This is also the story of the Spokane people. Of Indigenous people in America. Of a salmon people who have lost their salmon. Of men and women who have grown up amidst loss and violence and poverty. It is Alexie’s story but not his alone. Like Junior in The Absolutely True Diary, Alexie chose to attend high school outside of the reservation, surrounded by white kids. He tells a compelling story of attending a funeral for one of his classmates and realizing how differently death was dealt with on the reservation and off. Most strikingly, Alexie realizes that while he has already been to dozens of funerals, for most of his classmates this is their first up-close experience with death.

The book is an unusual mix of poetry and prose, with short chapters that dip into moments in his life or the history of the Spokane people and then move on to something completely different. The book has a looping, loping feel, often returning to the same topics or moments, clearly the ones that linger in Alexie’s memories.

His honesty is what makes the book. At times it feels like reading someone’s private diaries. Like Alexie’s fiction, it provides a fantastic viewpoint into a life and history that many of us in North America are not as familiar with as we should be. I recommend it for both its quality writing and the important topic of life for many Indigenous people in America today.

Book Review: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

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

While Angie Thomas’ first novel is being marketed as a young adult novel. I would greatly encourage all readers interested in modern America, racial issues, or violence among youth to read it. The book is probably most appropriate for older teen readers (15+) due to violence and some language. It’s a fairly easy read but has a lot of content.

Starr Carter is sixteen years old, lives with her family in the ghetto of Garden Heights. Her dad, a former gang-banger who spent time in prison, has since turned his life around and owns the local grocery store. After witnessing the death of a friend in a drive-by shooting, Starr and her brothers are sent across town to a prestigious, predominantly white school.

Starr is no stranger to violence and drugs but her family life is stable and the Garden is home. She feels pulled between the two worlds she inhabits – her black neighbourhood and her white school – and knows she no longer quite fits into either one. Attending a party one night in the Garden, she’s uncomfortable and out of place and happy to live early with an old friend, Khalil, after a fight breaks out.

Driving home, Khalil is pulled over by a police officer and Starr becomes the only witness when the cop shoots and kills Khalil. If you’ve been watching the news at all in the past two years, you might be familiar with how this story plays out.

We follow Starr over the following weeks as tensions and violence rise in her neighbourhood. As her friends at school make disparaging remarks about Khalil being a drug dealer or a member of a gang. And as Starr struggles with finding her voice and deciding whether to come forward publicly to defend Khalil, or to protect herself first.

While I grew up in a very ethnically diverse neighbourhood, I’m not that familiar with African-American culture so I can’t speak to the accuracy of Thomas’ depiction of the ghetto. Parts of the novel felt like they dipped into the cliche – Starr’s father’s backstory, for example, or even a side story about her family helping a young man escape from the local gang – but I have to defer to Thomas’ knowledge and overall the book felt very authentic. It’s filled with pop culture references and language that is up-to-date and, I think, would appeal to a youthful audience.

Thomas does an excellent job of depicting Starr’s split between her two worlds, using language and dialogue to show how she adapts to her surroundings. Starr realizes the need to be tightly controlled around her white friends at school, that she can never slip or risk being stereotyped as the “ghetto girl” or the “angry black girl”. There is a decent progression of her finding a better balance between these worlds and learning to trust more people on both sides.

Overall, I think this book makes a great introduction for anyone interested in the Black Lives Matters movement. It could offer many starting places for discussion with young readers, or anyone who might want to know more.

Book Review: Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

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

I’ve been to Beijing and stood in Tiananmen Square three times in my life. The first time was, I believe late 1988 or early 1989, before our family moved to Canada at the end of 1989. I would have been about three years old on that first trip and I have no memories of the place. Beijing Spring had not yet occurred. At the age of sixteen, when I returned again to Beijing, I remember being naively surprised that there was no monument in Tiananmen Square to those whose lives were lost in 1989.

The narrator of Thien’s excellent novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, is a little older than me. About eleven years old, already in Vancouver in 1989, as events in Beijing unfold. Her world is more focused on the departure and death of her father, who has left her and her mother to return to Hong Kong and there taken his own life. Months later, a teenage girl appears in their lives, fleeing from the turmoil in Mainland China. Ma-Li, the narrator, and Ai-Ming become close, almost sisters in the months they are together and Ai-Ming unfolds the stories that have brought them together, telling Ma-Li about a history that is her own but that she didn’t know.

There are layers of stories here. There is the present day timeline of Ma-Li as an adult. A professor at Simon Fraser University who has lost touch with Ai-Ming and eventually heads to Shanghai to try and find her, as well as to learn more about their shared history.

There is Ai-Ming’s involvement at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Aged eighteen, longing to be accepted as a student at Beijing University, drawn into the growing unrest of the students and the people around her.

And there is the story of Kai and Sparrow. Two young men who meet at the music conservatory in Shanghai in the 1960s. They are both skilled musicians, young men with promising futures in an increasingly difficult and dangerous atmosphere.

The novel is ambitious, spanning much of Chinese history in the 20th century. Thien doesn’t attempt to offer a history lesson though and a basic understanding of politics in China in the last one hundred years will probably help the reader. Instead, she focuses on a few characters, delving deeply into their lives over a span of years. This way she shows us what life was like in China for so many. The secrets, the betrayals, the distrust.

What impressed me most about the novel and about Thien’s writing was that while the story is so specific to time and place, the core message and heart of Do Not Say We Have Nothing feels completely relevant and timely today. She does this through strong characters that are easy to recognize and empathize with, not to mention a lot of excellent prose.