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Review: A Spark of Light

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

More than ten years ago, a friend gifted me a copy of Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper for Christmas. After devouring that in the Dublin airport, I made my way through her back catalogue. At this point, I’ve read nearly all of her books, seen her speak in a bookstore and follow her on Twitter. I’d stopped reading them as religiously as earlier – I felt like her books had become somewhat formulaic.

But Small Great Things was incredible and got me back on the Picoult bandwagon.

I expected another tour de force with A Spark of Light and was somewhat disappointed.

picoult

A Spark of Light is the story of a shooting at an abortion clinic, of the person doing the shooting, the people stuck inside, and those who are affected on the outside. The book begins with the climax of the shooting and works backwards, hour by hour, to fill in the gaps of how that day came to be. The story is told by the hostage negotiator whose daughter and sister happen to be in the clinic, by the daughter, an older woman who has just received bad news, a nurse doing her best to help those injured, a doctor who always feared this day would come and a protester who is undercover, trying to get dirt on how the clinic really operates.

Picoult is not known for shying away from big issues. She always thoroughly researches her stories, her characters are always fully formed. Picoult specializes in taking big issues and breaking them down so that they are digestible, so that readers can see things from a perspective they hadn’t necessarily considered before. She didn’t do that with Small Great Things – it was clear where the right side was. Unfortunately, it felt like Picoult was going out of her way to balance the scales in A Spark of Light.

I went back and forth on this one. A Spark of Light starts with the adrenaline running and I found myself immediately invested. But the further back we find ourselves, the less exciting the story is, the further from the action we are. I thought maybe Picoult was trying to show both sides initially so that she could come down on the Pro-Choice side in the end, but she didn’t.

I guess I expected more from Picoult in this instance. At a time when women’s rights are under attack, when men are increasingly legislating women’s bodies, it felt a little irresponsible to give a voice to those who would support those politicians. I guess the bottom line for me is that I don’t really care about what would motivate a man to shoot up an abortion clinic. I do think Picoult tried to work around the shooter but I’m not sure that it totally worked for me.

Had this book been released five years ago, I probably wouldn’t have an issue with it. It’s classic Picoult in a lot of ways. But in light of the state of the world, it was a little too much reality for me.

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Literary Wives: An American Marriage

It’s time for Literary Wives, a blogging club that looks at the depiction of wives in fiction!

Please make sure to check out the posts by the other wives and join in the discussion if you’ve read An American Marriage by Tayari Jones!

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Kay @ Whatmeread
Lynn @ Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi @ Consumed By Ink

The Book

an american marriage

Celestial and Roy have only been married a short while when they make the fateful decision not to spend the night at Roy’s parents’ house and go to a hotel instead. Before that night, their backgrounds had already caused some friction in their year and a half old marriage; Roy’s family is from the country, working hard for every penny while Celestial’s city family has been more than comfortable ever since her father sold a chemical invention to a juice company.

But after the night in the hotel, Roy is arrested for something he did not do and their marriage is sorely tested when Roy spends the next five years incarcerated. When he is out early, Celestial is confronted with the decisions she’s made in the time that Roy was away, namely those having to do with the relationship she’s been in with her childhood friend, Andre.

My Thoughts

The book has gotten a lot of buzz this year as first Oprah picked it for her book club and then former President Barack Obama included it in his list of books he loved over the summer. I’d bought a copy when Oprah made her announcement so I was glad for this push to finally read it. It didn’t take me long to realize that I was reading something incredible.

When Roy is in prison they communicate via letter only. In this way Jones conveys not only the physical distance between them but how disjointed their communication is; how things are misinterpreted or misunderstood and how difficult it is to undo that when you can’t see the person frequently. The letters show the progression of this phase of their marriage, from their anger and disbelief when Roy is first convicted, united in their grief over how much they are missing out on, to the distance as Celestial misses more and more visits, moving on with her life in the outside world, while Roy is stuck in a kind of loop.

Shortly after Roy is arrested, Celestial realizes that she is pregnant and they make the decision for her to have an abortion. Neither of them can face the idea of their child in the world while Roy is locked away. But later, each sees this decision in a different way. I thought this was another brilliant way to showcase not just their marriage, but marriage in general (albeit it at a completely different level). Similarly, it felt like Jones’ decision to include every characters’ middle names was a way of showing how they were all imprisoned by Roy’s incarceration, that they were each named like prisoners, no mistaking which Roy or Celestial or Andre they were talking about.

The novel is about this marriage but it’s also about class differences, race, being Black in America, art, how to build a life. It’s a big novel in a concentrated space (306 pages).

What does the book say about being a wife?

In terms of what An American Marriage says about being a wife, I think the point it’s trying to make is that wifedom, being married, is about the every day things, building and experiencing a life together. If you can’t do that, then your marriage is only in name.

Celestial has a hard time with the idea of being someone’s wife. In the end, when Andre is pushing for her to marry him, she says that she prefers the idea of a communion, not a marriage. She is more in love with the idea of companionship, of every day life with another person, but she chafes under anything more official, as though her marriage is the reason her life looks the way that it does now. The longer Roy is in prison, the harder Celestial has to work to remember him as a real person:

The truth is that before Roy materialized in my living room, I had forgotten that he was real. For the last two years, he was only an idea to me, this husband of mine who didn’t count. He had been away from me longer than we had been together. I’d convinced myself that there were laws limiting responsibility […] that I would be a memory to him in the way he was a memory for me.

Without Roy in front her of every day, Celestial lives her life solo without the obligations that come with being a wife. She already had a hard time being the wife to someone whose background was so different to her own, forgetting that not everyone was afforded the privileges and experiences she was. Without the ability to share a life, Celestial can’t see how she will continue to be a wife to Roy, a point that’s driven home when she attends Roy’s mother’s funeral,

What we have here isn’t a marriage. A marriage is more than your heart, it’s your life. And we are not sharing ours.

An American Marriage is a heartbreaking story about a marriage mortally wounded by the systemic racism of a justice system and the people who get caught in its trap.

In December, we’re reading The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve!

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Books I Loved This Summer

Officially we have another couple of weeks of summer left. But as everyone heads back to work and school, we all know that actually the summer is totally over. Sure, you can all sneak in some evenings in late summer sunshine, pretending like picnics in the park or at the beach are still every day but you’re lying to yourselves.

I’m not including myself in this because I’ve been waiting for summer to be over since May.

Still, summer is good for some things and one of those is reading. I had a more low-key reading summer than I’m used to but I still did manage to read some wonderful books. I didn’t manage to post about many over the summer so I’m telling you about them now.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. Oh my god, this book! I put off reading it because its length put me off. I wasn’t sure I had it in me to finish 479 pages this summer. Don’t let that put you off if you haven’t already read it. This gorgeous multi-generational story set in Korea and Japan is a stunner, a must-read. It was the kind of book I thought about when I wasn’t reading it, one I couldn’t wait to get back to. I told so many people about this book when I was reading it because I wanted to talk about it. A great book club selection if you’re looking for one!

The Vanity Fair Diaries 1983-1992 by Tina Brown. This was a great book to dip in and out of as circumstances required. Brown’s memoir of her time editing Vanity Fair is eye-opening, gossipy and whip smart. It was a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the people who shape our media landscape, made all the better as Brown herself is learning how to play the game. It was refreshing to read a story about a woman going after her dream job and coming to best those who would try and keep her in her place.

Tin Man by Sarah Winman. More of a novella, I wasn’t at all sure that I was going to love this book and then it ended and I felt like I’d been punched in the heart. Tin Man is a kind of unrequited love story with so many layers, it’ll have you thinking about it long after you finished the last page.

The Book of Essie by Meghan MacLean Weir. We all know I’m a reality TV junkie and I really appreciate when this interest shows up in my reading. It happened with Jessica Knoll’s The Favorite Sister as well (another of my favourites this summer). Both books offered a closer look at the people who make these shows, about what really goes on behind the cameras (I know they’re both fiction but they’re not, you know?), and examines the impact on the people who are featured and the ones who watch.

Isaac’s Storm: A Man, A Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History by Erik Larson. This was the only one of Larson’s books I hadn’t read yet and it was hard to find. When I saw a copy at the bookstore early in the summer, I didn’t even hesitate before I grabbed it. Reading this book nearly a year after Hurricane Harvey was kind of unsettling. In 1900, no one took the force of the storm seriously and it ended up killing around 6,000 people and leveling Galveston, Texas. Before the storm, it had been competing with Houston as the fastest growing city in the region. Larson has an incredible talent for finding the human element in all of his stories and Isaac’s Storm is no different. Sadly, it doesn’t seem as if we’ve come that far when it comes to taking weather seriously.

The Romanov Empress by C.W. Gortner is the first story to feature Empress Maria Feodorovna and honestly, that shocks me. She saw so much history over her lifetime (1847-1928): married to Alexander III, the mother of Nicholas II, related to English, Danish and Greek royals at a turbulent time for monarchy. Gortner ably handles this overlooked woman in history and I loved every page of The Romanov Empress. Thanks to Catherine @ Gilmore Guide to Books for my copy!

So that’s the highlights tour. Did you read any of these? What did you read this summer that you loved?

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A gift for you!

I love September. Every year I trick myself into believing that the advent of September automatically means cooler weather, time for sweaters and scarves. In reality, most of the month is still hot and sweaty and you’re better served continuing on with shorts and t-shirts.

But while the weather may not be what my dreams are made of, September is a guarantee that life will slip back into routine. For bookworms, there’s probably no better time of year than the Fall.

To help ease you all back into the routine, Literary Book Gifts has a surprise for readers of The Paperback Princess: 20% off anything in the store! We both know that there’s no limit of the amount of bookish totes or shirts that a bookworm can have and here’s a chance to get a discount on some great items!

I fell into the rabbit hole that is Literary Book Gifts recently and ended up buying a Dante’s Inferno t-shirt for my husband. I loved that it came in so many different colour options and that there were a number of size inclusive options as well. I ordered a size up to account for dryer shrinkage (my husband is between sizes, the dryer is a handy tool) and now it fits perfectly.

Melissa, the site owner, curates the entire collection herself and there are so many great titles represented. I also really appreciate that the site is so size inclusive – you can get up to a 3XL in women’s shirts and that’s just not something you come across often enough.

When you visit the site and find something you have to have (I keep going back and looking at totes in particular but I can’t choose!), just use THEPAPERBPRINCESS20 at checkout to get your 20% off! This offer doesn’t expire so you can return and use it again.

And if you do end up buying something, let me know what you get! Thanks to Melissa for this great offer!

Happy September friends!

 

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Odd Duck: The Victorian and the Romantic

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

We’re working on sleep training which is great and terrible. On the one hand, my tiny girl cries by herself in her room and I have to let her work it out herself. On the other hand, I have time to myself for eating, showering, laundry, reading and yes, even blogging.

So let’s get to it before she wakes up.

victorian

The Victorian and the Romantic: A Memoir, A Love Story, and a Friendship Across Time by Nell Stevens is a quirky take on the genre. At once a memoir about her time doing her PhD on Mrs Gaskell, it is also the story of a part of Mrs Gaskell’s life. Stevens decides to look at Mrs Gaskell’s time in Rome, shortly after the publication of her biography of friend Charlotte Bronte. There she supposedly had a romance with the American critic, Charles Eliot Norton. While working on her PhD, Stevens finds herself distracted by her own romance with an American screenwriter living in Paris.

If you have been a reader of this site for any length of time, you will know that I despise it when women, in fiction or non-fiction, put their dreams and lives on hold because of a man. Or even just rearrange their entire lives to suit the needs of a romance. So there were definitely moments reading The Victorian and the Romantic where I was rolling my eyes, willing Nell to not give up on her own dreams to suit the guy’s.

But then her heart is shattered and she must pick up the pieces and I found myself drawn to Nell and her story. I enjoyed the way she wrote Mrs Gaskell’s story, as though she were talking about a friend. In writing about her own relationship with a man who came into her life at the exact wrong time, she aligns herself with Mrs Gaskell and her very conservative Victorian “relationship” with Norton. Stevens illuminated a part of Mrs Gaskell’s life that I had no idea about (although to be fair, I knew she was married to a minister, lived in Manchester and died before she finished Wives and Daughters…)

This was an easy non-fiction read that had spirit, was beautifully written and made me want to learn more about a woman whose work I have enjoyed since I was introduced to Mary Barton in first year university. It’s a bit of an odd duck of a book (for example the Mrs Gaskell section is written in second person which you almost never see) but for all it’s quirks it’s also a solid little book written with heart.

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Victorian Scandal: Becoming Belle

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

love  reading about Victorian aristocrats. Their codes of conduct, their society rules are fasctinating and there’s nothing better than reading about scandals of the time.

So when I heard about Nuala O’Conner’s new novel, Becoming Belle, about the woman who would become the Countess of Clancarty after acting on the stages of London, I knew I’d be reading it ASAP.

becoming belle

Isabel Bilton is the eldest daughter of a military man. She clashes with her overbearing mother and eventually, with the help of her sympathetic father, goes to London to follow her dream of making a living on stage. She finds work immediately and, after bringing her younger sister Florence to town, headlines her own sister act. It isn’t long before Isabel is the toast of the town.

Initially Isabel is completely naive and is taken in by a con man. But eventually she falls in love with the young Viscount Dunlo and it’s their secret marriage before he reaches the age of majority that kicked off one of those notorious court cases that I love so much.

Usually, I read about these in a non-fiction context, generally when I’m reading about Queen Victoria or one of her children. Becoming Belle brought the people involved to life, full of their contradictions and foibles. O’Conner’s portrait of a young woman following her dreams, who falls in love, colours in so much more of the story and the players. When you read about these cases in passing, it’s easy to forget that these were real people with their entire lives on display for everyone to pass judgment on.

As much as Belle (as she eventually styles herself) is held to the codes of conduct of her time, she blazes her own trail. After being burned by a man she thought was in love with her and forced to make a decision that would allow her to continue to live as she chooses, she wants to be in control of her own destiny. While she loves Viscount Dunlo and wants to share a life with him, she doesn’t want to put herself in a position of being dependent on her.

Becoming Belle is the story of a singular woman following her heart at all costs. It’s exactly the kind of book I hoped I’d be reading when I picked it. I think it could make for a delightful mini-series (ahem, Julian Fellowes).

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Literary Wives: First Love

It’s time for Literary Wives, a blogging club that looks at the depiction of wives in fiction!

Please make sure to check out the posts by the other wives and join in the discussion if you’ve read First Love by Gwendoline Riley.

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Kay @ Whatmeread
Lynn @ Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi @ Consumed By Ink

The Book

first love

First Love is the story of Neve’s marriage to Edwyn. They live together in London and are definitely not suited to each other – Edwyn thinks that Neve is dirty and trashy and Neve is self-conscious of her origins compared to Edwyn’s. They go through cycles of calm, where neither are particularly interested in being involved with the other but aren’t at each other’s throats, and explosions of temper than end in threats of leaving each other.

The book looks at Neve’s life and the decisions that ultimately brought her to Edwyn. There’s the relationship with her parents with eerie echoes of her own marriage, the musician she keeps coming back to, thinking that with him she could have had something different, the crushing loneliness of finding herself on her own for the first time.

 

My Thoughts

So this book isn’t long – my copy was 166 pages – which was probably a good thing as I read it in the early newborn days. I read it while nursing or bouncing her around the garden in her baby wrap. How much I was able to focus on what I was reading is about to be determined.

I do remember thinking that this book is exactly the kind of book that would be shortlisted for a literary prize (Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017). I didn’t find it particularly emotional considering the subject matter. There’s always such a distance in books that are considered for such awards, as though emotion is unseemly and unworthy of consideration. One must focus on the craft.

I did feel anger towards Edwyn and Neve’s father for gaslighting the hell out of Neve, making her think that the things she was feeling were invalid, that the things she remembers happening never did. Neve learns to make herself small, to tread softly so as not to incite the wrath of her bullying and overbearing father, traits she brings into her marriage to Edwyn.

I honestly wanted to shake Neve out of her submission and I wanted to slap Edwyn. Reading the conversations between Neve and her husband, where he twists everything she says to make her feel stupid was honestly one of the most infuriating things.

Ultimately, it felt like the kind of book that looks at the cyclical nature of our most important relationships. Neve is treated terribly by her father and when the same comes to pass in her marriage, she doesn’t seem to think she deserves any better.

 

What does the book say about being a wife?

First Love is a book about being trapped in a marriage, in the role of wife. Neve is unable to see her life without Edwyn in it. She believes his ideas about her, that she drinks too much (she got really drunk once and vomited when she got home, something Edwyn has never let her forget), that she’s trashy, she’s dumb even though she supposedly reads.

Further complicating the matter is the fact that Edwyn suffers from a heart condition, the same one that killed her father. Neve feels intense guilt even thinking about leaving Edwyn, has guilt over her father dying, believing that visiting him more often could have somehow changed the outcome.

Neve has loads of baggage from her relationship with her father, which interferes in her marriage. Even though Edwyn is never physically violent with her, there are echoes of her parents’ marriage in her own and in some ways that makes Neve feel safe. She knows what kind of husband Edwyn will be even as his behaviour becomes more erratic. She believes that as his wife, she’s the only one that can provide him with comfort as he struggles with his health. For Neve, her role as wife means giving over everything of herself in service to her husband.

 

In October, we’ll be discussing An American Marriage by Tayari Jones.