2

2016 TBR Pile Challenge: Bellweather Rhapsody

September really does feel like a chance to get things right again, doesn’t it? Which is why it seems like a great time to try and catch up on the Unofficial 2016 TBR Pile Challenge!

I read Thunderstruck earlier this month and then put a hold on Bellweather Rhapsody at the library. It was ready for me the same day and I started it right away.

bell

Kate Racculia’s Bellweather Rhapsody is awesome. It starts on November 13, 1982 when Millie is an unwilling 12-year-old bridesmaid in her sister’s wedding. After photos, she wanders off in the hotel and finds herself outside room 712 which is where she witnesses the murder-suicide of a bride and groom on their wedding day.

Fifteen years later, Rabbit and Alice Hatmaker are at the same hotel for the Statewide music festival, an opportunity for gifted highschool students to make music and perform. Rabbit is thinking about using the weekend to tell his twin that he’s gay; Alice sees the weekend, her second year at Statewide, as a chance to shine even brighter. On the first night, Alice’s roommate, a celebrated and famous teenaged flautist and daughter of the interim director of the festival (the most terrifying woman ever), disappears from room 712.

I was genuinely delighted to find that the disappearance/mystery aspect of this book was secondary to the character development. Racculia’s characters are bananas – in the best possible way. Rabbit and Alice are a great one-two punch of siblinghood: Alice refers to herself as the “bad twin”, the one that is loud and will totally cut you if you mess with her brother, Rabbit is more staid, the one focused on his music who is terrified about coming out and what the next phase of his life will look like. Then there is Viola, the interim director who inspires fear in all who meet her and has left a string of misery in her wake; Natalie, the Hatmakers’ chaperone, reeling from an event in the not-too-distant past, still coming to terms with the role of music in her own life; the eccentric conductor Fisher, intent on pushing the kids to greatness while grappling with his own genius; and Hastings, the concierge still running things at the Bellweather despite plummeting guest rates and a hotel that is visibly crumbling around him.

These characters are all struggling with ideas of identity and their place in the world. For most of them, their talent is a platform for greatness but it’s also a burden as they try to reach their potential. For the adults, that decision about whether to pursue their talent or not, has already been made and now they have to make peace with that. This book was unexpectedly moving as the mystery moves off centre stage, giving the characters the space to work through their demons.

But Racculia doesn’t forget about the mystery that she teased you with and all is revealed in a most satisfying way. The full ramifications of what happened aren’t felt until years later but the payoff meant a few tears from this reader.

If you haven’t already had the pleasure of reading Bellweather Rhapsody and you love eccentric characters, pop culture references and a dash of mystery, I’d recommend this to you!

18

A mansplaining fetus

A lot of people have been talking about Ian McEwan’s Nutshell. I’ve read that it’s original, that McEwan is subverting genres, and that it’s clever and incredibly entertaining.

I guess?

I’ll be up front – I struggled to get through Atonement, so I might not be McEwan’s target audience.

But I do appreciate whodunits and I’m not sure that I appreciated this book.

Trudy is living in her husband, John’s, London townhouse. But she’s living there with John’s brother, Claude who she is having an affair with. (First of all, parents who call their first son John, are not going to follow that up with Claude. It’s just not going to happen.) The house is worth a lot of money and Claude and Trudy could both use some money. But the house belongs to John, who is still very much in love with Trudy and who hopes that they can still reconcile.

Especially for the sake of their unborn child. You may have heard that this book is narrated by the resident of Trudy’s womb, a male child who is privy to all of Trudy and Claude’s secrets and plans.

The elements of a good crime story were there – kind of reminiscent of Ian Rankin’s Doors Open where you get a front row seat to the planning of the crime, rather than the aftermath. But at some point, the precocious narrator started to wear on me – he started to veer into mansplaining territory.

As he meditates on right and wrong, attachments to his parents, the role of a son in saving the father, he comes across as so pretentious. I get enough of that in real life, I don’t need to spend time with those characters in my reading.

For my mother, so much effortful negation. How wearying, on top of all else (a hangover, a murder, enervating sex, advanced pregnancy) for my mother to be obliged to exert her will and extend fulsome hatred to a guest.

That’s another thing – Trudy gets drunk all the time. She’s hungover basically the entire time and there’s a lot of sex which I mostly just found icky.

I tried hard to find something about this book that resonated with me but I think it was just not for me. I’m sure if you took a quick peek online you would find that I’m one of the few.

Thanks to Penguin Random House of Canada for an ARC of this book. Any errors in quoting are due to coming from an unfinished version of the book.

8

Read it: Under the Udala Trees

I was happily reading along, not paying too much attention to what and who I was reading when I realized that I had inadvertently put together a streak of white male authors.

I’m not here to rag on white male authors. I’m just saying that if you don’t pay attention, it’s easy to forget to ensure that you are reading stories from different kinds of voices. And reading widely, reading stories that don’t look like yours, is important.

Once I realized that I had slipped, I actively picked out a new voice. I chose Chinelo Okparanta’s Under the Udala Trees.

udala

Ijeoma is a young girl when the Biafran War takes her father from her. Her mother leaves her in the care of family friends shortly thereafter, to try and start a new life for them. While Ijeoma is with these family friends, she meets Amina. Amina is Hausi, Ijeoma is Igbo. They fall in love and start to explore their love physically. When they are caught, Ijeoma is sent back to her mother.

Ijeoma is subject to months of biblical teaching, her mother’s way of showing her that what she did was unnatural, that what she did was an abomination. Ijeoma is never totally convinced of this but she goes along with it.

Eventually, Ijeoma marries a man and tries to be “normal.” But every day that she cannot be herself is a struggle and ultimately, Ijeoma has to choose: will she live and love for herself or by the expectations of her world?

Through Ijeoma, we see what life is like for the voiceless LGBTQ people of Nigeria over the years. Ijeoma knows that she loves women, but it’s dangerous for her to be seen in relationships with women – men and women have been beaten to death for these “unnatural” relationships. Ijeoma’s mother wants her daughter to be happy and healthy but for her that means that she is married to a man and has children with him. Ijeoma’s mother, a deeply religious woman, can’t reconcile the way her daughter is with the faith that she holds so dear.

Okparanta’s story is incredibly brave. Her prose is deft and spare and so, so readable. This isn’t a book that is a tough slog – I was surprised at how quickly I was turning the pages. The whole time I felt like I was holding my breath, not because it was a stressful book but because I felt suffocated by how much Ijeoma had to hold back.

Under the Udala Trees is an important work. Even today, strict rules govern the lives and loves of people in Nigeria. LGBTQ people still have to hide who they really are – their country does not recognize any rights of theirs, and there is no legal protection against discrimination. Death by stoning is still a punishment for same-sex “activity.”

Read this book.

3

Flavia is growing up

Flavia de Luce is one of my favourite characters in literature right now. She is cheeky and clever and funny, she doesn’t play by the rules, is tortured by her sisters but is well able to give as good as she gets and she has quite the knack for finding bodies.

When I finished reading When Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, I wasn’t sure if the series was going to continue. Author Alan Bradley had spoken before of his intention to write only six books. When Chimney Sweepers Came to Dust was the 7th book and it didn’t feel like the end but I couldn’t find anything anywhere to tell me either way.

Well! Imagine my delight when I heard about Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d!

thrice_brinded

Flavia is back home in Bishop’s Lacey after her time in Canada. She is looking forward to being welcomed home with open arms by Dogger, her father, and even her sisters. So she’s a little disheartened to see only Dogger waiting for her when she arrives. He tells her that her father, Colonel de Luce has pneumonia and is in the hospital.

When Flavia gets home she finds the place quite different. Her sisters are off in their own world, her father is in the hospital and no one really cares what Flavia does. So Flavia goes out on her own, to say hi to some of her friends in the village. The vicar’s wife asks her to please take a letter to this man in the next village over and when Flavia arrives, she finds him strapped upside down on the back of the door, dead.

What follows is classic Flavia. She decides to look into the matter on her own, knowing that she can do it better than the police.

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d is more melancholy than the previous books. Flavia is growing up and she’s beginning to understand people and how society works. Additionally, she really misses the family dynamics the way they used to be and worries about her father who she isn’t allowed to see.

I appreciated a more adult Flavia. Don’t get me wrong – she’s still 100% Flavia, with a dislike of people in general but she’s more forgiving of their foibles. I suspect that Bradley has plans for Flavia and they include her having to grow up. When I first started reading these books, I assumed that Flavia would be eternally 11. I see now that that was never the intention. Bradley has allowed Flavia to grow up and is making room for readers to come along for the journey. This latest book is setting the stage for a Flavia to grow up and I’m looking forward to seeing how that all turns out.

I’ve said it before and I will say it again: if you haven’t read the Flavia de Luce books, you are missing out and I do not know what you are even waiting for!

Thanks to Penguin Random House of Canada for an ARC of this book. 

6

Glad to send them back

A few weeks ago, I went to the library and got a (small) pile of books that I was so excited about: The Assistants by Camille Perri, Dear Fang, With Love by Rufi Thorpe and The After Party by Anton DiSclafani. I ended up reading them all and only one, The Assistants, lived up to the hype (in my head).

library-pile

I’m not going to talk about The Assistants too much – just know that it was sharp and clever, full of wry observations and reminded me of The Devil Wears Prada crossed with The Knockoff. I read it in a day and it was a delight in every way.

Let’s start with Dear Fang, With Love. Amanda @ Gun in Act One really liked it. I was optimistic – this was from the same author as The Girls From Corona del Mar! Vera’s parents had her when they were little more than children themselves. Her Russian mother, Katya, sacrificed everything to raise her but never felt like those sacrifices weren’t worth it. Vera is her whole world. Vera’s father, Lucas, basically checked out as soon as Vera was born. He has since become a part of her life, but in an every-other-weekend-let’s-be-friends kind of way. When Vera has a breakdown and is diagnosed as bipolar, Lucas decides that a trip to Vilnius, where his family is from, is the perfect way for Vera to reset.

This book is crammed with characters, each a little more absurd than the last. There are also a number of storylines squeezed into less than 300 pages: the history of Lucas and Katya; Lucas’ grandmother and her escape from a death camp; Vera’s relationship with her boyfriend, Fang; Lucas trying to start a new relationship on the trip; Lucas’ long lost family in Vilnius; Vera’s emails and the way she views herself.

I wanted this book to be better than it was. The subject matter, a young woman struggling with a serious mental health diagnosis, is important. But it felt like it was being buried under all these other stories, making the important one less effective. It was only the last third, quarter really, of the book that it packed any kind of punch. It was a little too late for me.

Now, The After Party. The cover made me think I was getting something along the lines of The Swans of Fifth Avenue in Houston. That is, wealthy women behaving badly. It tried to be more than that and for me, it fell flat.

When Cece is a girl, she and her best friend Joan have the same name. Their teacher decides that two Joans is too many and so Joan Cecilia becomes Cece. This sets the pattern for much of the rest of Cece’s life – everything she does is in aid of her best friend Joan. When Cece’s mother dies when Cece is just 14, she goes to live with Joan and her family. Right after they graduate, Joan disappears for the first time. Instead of moving on with her life, Cece just exists until Joan returns.

Later, when Cece is married to a wonderful man and has a little boy, she spends all of her time worrying about Joan, to the detriment of her marriage and family. Joan is keeping Cece at a distance and all Cece wants is for Joan to love her.

Set against the backdrop of a certain kind of 1960s way of life (wealthy Texans with money to burn) this book could have been something. But the main character doesn’t offer us anything except a kind of pathetic yearning to be loved by someone who has moved on. So deep does this yearning go that she can’t even see what she does have.

In the end, DiSclafani tries to resuscitate the book by finally telling us all of Joan’s story but for me, it was way too late.

These were books that I was tempted to buy many times but I’m glad I borrowed them from the library instead.

9

Sophomore slump: The Muse

I first read Jessie Burton because her first book, The Miniaturist, took place in Amsterdam and I will read pretty well anything that takes place in Amsterdam.

I read The Muse, because I enjoyed The Miniaturist and because the cover of it was oh so pretty.

So I’m shallow. What?

(True story: I recently lent The Miniaturist to a friend and she texted to tell me that it was amazing)

img_6249

The Muse starts off with  Odelle Bastien, a recent transplant to London from the Carribbean. It’s 1967 and Odelle, who has aspirations to be a writer, is working in a shoe store. But it’s short lived because she gets an offer to work at the Skelton Art Gallery. Shortly after she starts working there, she meets a young man who happens to have in his possession what could be a long lost painting by the famous Isaac Robles. Robles died a mysterious death and only produced a handful of paintings during his short career – understandably there is a lot of interest in this new work. But how did the young man get the painting?

The other story is that of Olive Schloss. Olive is the daughter of a Jewish art dealer and an English heiress and has big dreams for her life. But they are in a small, poverty-stricken town in southern Spain in 1937. She soon becomes close to the young housekeeper, Teresa, and her half-brother, Isaac. Isaac is a revolutionary, and a painter, who wants to be as big a deal as Picasso.

I’m not sure that The Muse is as good as The Miniaturist. I think Burton ignored an entire facet of her story that could have had a big impact – namely that of Odelle’s experience in 1967 London as a young black woman in love with a white man. But I appreciated the inversion of the idea of the muse – it is a man who inspires the artist and a woman who needs the love of this man to create. I also think that Burton worked really hard to try and obfuscate what really happened and it might have been more effective to let the reader in earlier. It was really clear to me who was who from 1937 in 1967.

Ultimately, I enjoyed the mystery wrapped up in the political history of the time but this is not a book that will stand out as one that I loved.

5

CanLit: The Fortunate Brother

When I first started reading The Fortunate Brother by Donna Morrissey I was afraid that all my old issues with CanLit were coming home to roost in this book.

But I kept at it and before I knew it, I had spent the entire day with this book and was quite attached to it.

The Fortunate Brother is about Kyle Now. His father, Sylvanus has been drinking heavily since the death of Kyle’s brother, Chris. His mother, Addie has just been diagnosed with breast cancer and wants Kyle and his father to quit drinking and make something better out of their lives. When the local bully ends up dead, with traces of his blood on the Now’s dock, Kyle questions everything he knows and really starts to flounder.

This book is very much of a certain time and place. It’s 1980, in Newfoundland, with all the baggage that that comes with. The Nows have come back to this next part of their story, having featured in Morrissey’s previous novel, Sylvanus Now. That one takes place in the 1950s – for readers of that book (I haven’t read it) this is a chance to see what happened.

This book is tense. Right from the beginning, Kyle is at a loose end, living in the shadow of his dead brother, blaming his sister for her part in it. He’s barely 20 and feels like an old man, trying to figure out what his next step is.

The murder really throws everything off. Morrissey takes you into the community, makes you a part of the drama and the unease. It’s a layered story that’s drawn out with purpose. There is a lot going on – a murder mystery, cancer, a family trying to put itself back together – but Morrissey handles all these facets with care. When I started reading it, I didn’t understand how it could all fit together, so disparate did the elements feel. But Morrissey manages it.

In the end, I was grateful to get to read such a taut, complex, resonant and philosophical tale about family and one’s place in the world.

To really get a sense of the strength of the writing, take a look at this post about the book from Naomi @ Consumed By Ink.

Thanks to Penguin Random House of Canada for an ARC of this book.