0

Into That Fire: A grown up love story

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

I’m lucky enough to get books sent to me by Penguin Random House Canada. But I often forget what I’ve requested and sometimes the books arrive and my excitement levels are fairly low. I look at some books and go “why did I think this would be something I’d want to read?”

I know, I’m a jerk.

That’s kind of how I was feeling when I sat down to start reading M.J. Cates’ Into That Fire. Plus, it’s CanLit which is a genre I still struggle with. I tried to get a sense of what other readers were feeling via goodreads but there was virtually no information about the book there. I was apprehensive to say the least, anticipating a several-days’-long-slog of a read.

I could not have been more wrong about Into That Fire. It was wonderful.

fire

It is 1916 and Imogen Lang knows she’s about to break Quentin Goodchild’s heart. He is her best friend in medical school but she knows that he wants more than she’s prepared to give. Imogen has plans to go on to Baltimore, to work in a lab and with patients to try and find a cure for madness. When she finally tells Quentin how she feels, she breaks his heart and Quentin determines to join the army and die. He leaves to join the Canadian Expeditionary Force (the States isn’t involved in the Great War at this point) and Imogen leaves for Baltimore to try and further her career. But Imogen wasn’t prepared for the sexism she was going to encounter in pretty well every aspect of her life and when she hears that Quentin has been killed she starts to think about the life she might have had with Quentin.

Into That Fire takes its time. The characters have the space to become fully fleshed out, to live and love, to fail and succeed. I had initially thought of it as a WWI story but it’s so much more than that. It mostly centers around Imogen and her fight to become recognized as a professional in a time when women basically all dropped out of the few careers open to them once they married and had children. There’s a whole psychology thread to the book that I wasn’t sure I would enjoy but I felt like it added so many layers to the book.

I can’t say that this is an emotional book but I did find myself getting ENRAGED by some of the sexism Imogen encounters. She is constantly being undermined, forced to explain herself, and held to infuriating double standards. When the man she marries blames her for the problems in their marriage because she insisted on working once they had children even though he always said that he wanted her to work, supported her dreams, I almost threw the book across the room. I wasn’t swept away but I was definitely invested.

I spent a fair amount of time wondering about the identity of M.J. Cates. It’s a pseudonym for a Canadian writer who has written many novels and won several awards under another name. If you know who this is, please please tell me. I did a casual google and couldn’t find out. I’m leaning towards Cates being a woman but I honestly couldn’t put money on it.

Into That Fire is a full grown love story with layers and three-dimensional characters, littered with truths about the human condition. I’m still thinking about it and need to tell more people about how good it is.

Advertisements
2

Canadian Chick Lit

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

You know how the more you read of a certain genre, the harder it becomes to enjoy it? I’ve been reading Chick Lit for close to twenty years (what?!) and I go through phases where I think I won’t ever enjoy another iteration.

I worried a little bit that that was happening with The Matchmaker’s List by Sonya Lalli but I’m happy to report that it did manage to redeem itself. Plus, this book is Canadian and you all know how that’s always been a challenge for me.

matchmaker

Raina Anand has just turned 29 and her nani is keen to get her married to a nice Indian boy. Raina has a great career, owns a condo in Toronto (no small feat!) and has a great group of friends – she’s a catch! The problem is that Raina’s heart isn’t in it; she’s still hung up on Dev, the guy she was with while living in London who definitely isn’t ready for that kind of step. When they broke up Raina was devastated and wore out the patience of her best friend, who is now planning her own big Indian wedding.

There was a point in the book when I was afraid it was going to become a story about a girl waiting on the wrong kind of boy to come to his senses and realize he wants to be with her, that she would only feel validation once he loved her.

Happily, the further I read the more layers I peeled back. The Matchmaker’s List is a kind of boy-meets-girl story made fresh by the cultural observations of an Indo-Canadian woman. It’s the story of three generations of women in a family trying to come to terms with what their relationships to each other and their community look like. Raina gets into all kinds of trouble by letting her grandmother think that she’s gay so she will stop trying to set her up. In borrowing a narrative that doesn’t belong to her, she realizes that she’s cheapening the story for those who it does belong to.

The Matchmaker’s List was funny, it was honest, it felt real. It’s a completely Canadian story while also being universal in its themes of love, family, and the journey to find our true selves.

6

Canada Reads: The Boat People

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

It’s that time of year again! Canada’s national book competition, Canada Reads, is kicking off once more!

This year the theme is One Book to Open Your Eyes. The books that will be competing are:

And because I’m still working on becoming a better CanLit reader, I’ve only read one of the books this year: The Boat People by Sharon Bala.
From Goodreads:
When the rusty cargo ship carrying Mahindan and five hundred fellow refugees from Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war reaches Canadian shores, the young father believes he and his six-year-old son can finally begin a new life. Instead, the group is thrown into prison, with government officials and news headlines speculating that hidden among the “boat people” are members of a terrorist organization infamous for their suicide attacks. As suspicion swirls and interrogation mounts, Mahindan fears the desperate actions he took to survive and escape Sri Lanka now jeopardize his and his son’s chances for asylum.
boat people
The Boat People is told from alternating perspectives: Mahindan as he tries to figure out what is happening to him in this new country and worries over his son, who he has been separated from; his lawyer Priya, a second-generation Sri Lankan-Canadian who has never really been a part of Sri Lankan culture and must grapple with her identity and her role in Mahindan’s life; and Grace, the adjudicator, a third generation Japanese-Canadian whose family was interred during the war and stripped of everything they had worked to achieve, who must decide if Mahindan is a threat to the safety of her country, just like people decided her family was all those years ago.
The alternating perspectives provided a lot of layers to this story – Mahindan’s story is told from when he is in Canada but also what happened to him and others in Sri Lanka, that brought him here in the first place. Bala tells the story of Sri Lanka through Mahindan and Priya who learns about what happened to her own family that prompted them to escape to Canada.
But The Boat People can feel heavy handed with it’s message of inclusion and the duty to provide asylum and it’s mostly because of Grace. Grace has been appointed as an adjudicator by a former boss, a minister who is intent on kicking all of these people out of the country because they are probably terrorists. She is terrified of disappointing him and is infected by his xenophobic rhetoric. And as she continues to ignore her own family history, she is doomed to be the reason history is repeated.
There is a lot of complex history about Sri Lanka that Bala has no doubt simplified for her readers. And still I found it really overwhelming. The political history of that country is still something that I do not understand but Bala does do an admirable job of focusing those politics on the people they affected. In this way, Bala focuses on the human toll of political upheaval and forces readers to decide where the line is in offering asylum or shutting the door.
I think that The Boat People can be the kind of book a lot of people should read. It clearly did open my eyes to suffering in a part of the world I wasn’t paying attention to. But I’m not sure that this is the one book that will force the entire country to open their eyes and pay attention.
The competition starts on March 26 – tune in at cbc.ca!
8

Taking ‘Buckshaw’ out of the Buckshaw Chronicles

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

Recently, I’ve seen people “confess” to their love of the Flavia de Luce books (fine, the Buckshaw Chronicles). Like reading and liking these books is something to feel guilty about, they are some kind of guilty pleasure.

I’m not about that life, guys. Are Alan Bradley’s delightful mysteries set in the 1950s English countryside gritty or dark or violent? Nope. But that’s kind of their charm. They are much more in the vein of Agatha Christie and I for one appreciate their lighter fare. I’ve spent several years loving Flavia and her penchant for solving crimes, chemistry and finding new ways to torture her older sisters.

So I’m not here to rag on these books. I think they are the kind of books that we probably need these days.

But I think Book #9, The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place, might be the end of the line.

grave

This is the copy I have…

After the shocking end of Book #8 (still not over it), the ever faithful Dogger takes Flavia and her older sisters on a boating trip before they are all off to new lives. As they are making their way up the river, Dogger is just telling Flavia about the wonderful case of the vicar who poisoned three of his parishioners and how they dropped dead right in the front pew, when Flavia literally drags a body from the water. One minute she’s dragging her arm in the water, the next a body is hanging from her hand by its teeth.

Naturally Flavia is delighted and Dogger and the de Luces decamp to the village of the famous poisoning incident. While there, Flavia endeavors to find out not only what happened to the body she dragged from the water but how did the vicar actually go about poisoning his parishioners?

In true Buckshaw Chronicles fashion, Flavia uncovers more than she bargained for and learns ever more about human nature.

If you’re familiar with these books, then you know exactly what you’re getting with The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place. It follows in the footsteps of it’s predecessors. The fact that this one is removed from Buckshaw and Bishop’s Lacey does mean that we lose access to some of the characters that didn’t come along on the trip. But Bradley has given us a whole cast of new characters that ably fill the void. However, if this IS the last one, the series is going out with a whimper, not a bang. And I can’t decide how I feel about that.

grave2

…but THIS version is stunning!

Now that Flavia has made a decision about her future, putting all her skills and training to use in this new pursuit, now that all of the financial issues around Buckshaw have been sorted out, I kind of want to see what direction these books could go in. They really do feel like an homage to Agatha Christie, maybe mixed with The Bletchley Circle and Harriet the Spy. Having freed himself from some of the constraints of the story, I want to see what Bradley comes up with for Flavia.

If you can come to this maybe-final book accepting it for what it is, then I suspect you will enjoy the ride. Flavia is in fine form, finally understanding how humans relate to one another, something that has always eluded her.

Finally, Flavia is all grown up.

6

CanLit Win: Someone You Love Is Gone

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

Heading into the long weekend, I was planning on reading something easy, a “guilty pleasure” style book. But by the time Monday rolled around, and I still hadn’t finished that particular book (or even really cared to read it at all) I decided that I’d maybe need to admit defeat and move on.

(Remember at the beginning of the year I said I’d be better about not finishing books?)

I looked around the apartment for my next book and settled pretty quickly on Someone You Love Is Gone by Gurjinder Basran. Basran is a local author whose debut novel, Everything Was Goodbye was the winner of the Search for the Great BC Novel contest in 2010 and the Ethel Wilson Fiction Award in 2011. It was also a Chatelaine Book Club pick in 2012.

basran

In Someone You Love Is Gone, Basran explores loss and grief and the coming to terms with a new reality. Simran’s mother has just passed away after a long illness. Simran doesn’t know how to cope with the void in her life; the past couple of years have been spent caring for her mother and suddenly her mother doesn’t exist anymore.

Except she kind of does. As she starts moving forward with her life, Simran’s mother haunts her, sits with her and talks about the past, about her siblings and the need for family in this world. They are just little glimpses of her but they offer Simran some comfort. Especially as she works through her family’s past, decisions that were made and the repercussions that rippled out through the generations.

When Simran was 10, her brother Diwa, always a special boy, believing himself to be reincarnated, is sent away to live with relatives. No explanation is ever given to Simran or Diwa; Diwa is gone and the siblings rarely see each other anymore. Soon a new sibling, Jyoti is born but the age difference means the sisters never become close.

There’s a lot going on in this book; three times are moving forward and while that often irritates me, removing me from one story when I’m just starting to settle into it, in Someone You Love Is Gone, it works. Basran has given each story the time that it needs, she hasn’t weighed it down with extraneous details or complications. Each story fits inside the others, like a series of Russian nesting dolls.

Simran is without a doubt the anchor of the story. Parts of the book are in first person from her perspective and again, normally this would drive me crazy, but here it felt natural and right. You can feel Simran’s sadness, the grief that she’s just coming to terms with, both over the loss of her mother and all the other losses she’s had to deal with over the course of a lifetime. All three of the siblings have grown up kind alone inside this family that just wants to function and get through the days, to not dwell on the bad things that have happened.

I thought it might be heavy novel, dealing with death as it does. I was worried that I’d become mired down in the darkness that I assumed would come with this book. But there is a real freedom in this book, a weightlessness that comes from Basran offering her characters redemption.

Basran has crafted a quiet, thoughtful novel. It is at once incredibly personal, the story of one family, and completely universal as I’m sure readers will be able to see themselves and their own families in it.

Another thumbs up on the CanLit front.

9

Canada Reads 2017: The Break

Two years ago, I tuned into the Canada Reads debate for the first time. I ended up reading two of the books after the fact (one of which, When Everything Feels Like The Movies stays with me still).

Last year, I read two of the books ahead of the debate (progress!). I bought the winner soon after it was over and have yet to read it (because that’s how I roll).

This year I’ve bought two of the books and currently, I’ve read one. I’ll read the other one but I hope The Break wins.

thebreak

Katherena Vermette’s debut novel, The Break, centres on a sexual assault that takes place in the middle of the night. Stella, a young Metis mother, hears something outside and, fearing that someone is hurt but unable to leave her house and her children, she calls the police. The book tells the story leading up to that night and it’s aftermath from rotating, multi-generational viewpoints: the sisters, cousins, mothers and aunts that make up one Aboriginal family affected, their friends, and a young Metis police officer assigned to investigate the case.

The Break slowly burns into an inferno of a book. It rightfully comes with a trigger warning due to scenes of sexual and physical violence and those scenes are brutal. But they don’t take away from the beauty of this book.

Vermette weaves a layered tale involving perspectives from mothers, daughters, lost children, of Aboriginal women who have chosen to forge a life in the city away from their ancestral lands and traditions. It is a commentary on the value our country has placed on these women, how easily we dismiss their concerns, the destruction of their young. Vermette’s vivid characters belong to a sisterhood long used to fending for themselves, who worry for their children and how the world will view them.

The whole idea of Canada Reads is that we’re supposed to find that one book that the country needs to read. In the face of all that is wrong in this country when it comes to Aboriginal relations, I think it would benefit the country massively to read The Break. It is a the kind of book that breaks you wide open and lets some much needed light in.

 

11

Getting’ witchy with it

Halloween is not my holiday, really.

I don’t like to be scared. Seriously, I hate it. I don’t watch scary movies or read books in any genres that might give me a fright.

I also don’t particularly like dressing up? I’ve only felt like I’ve nailed my costumes a couple of times: Mary Poppins when I was 11, Alice in Wonderland at 22, and Charlie Chaplin when I was 10 except a few people thought I was Hitler on that last one, which was super unfortunate.

(And begs the question, what 10 year old is dressing up as Hitler?)

All that to say that my contribution to Halloween this year is a review of a witchy book: Ami McKay’s The Witches of New York.

I know – daring, isn’t it?

Back in the day, I read McKay’s The Birth House in one sitting. At the time, I couldn’t remember being quite so captivated by a book. It was also one of the first successful forays into CanLit (can someone figure this out for me? McKay was born in the States but lives in Nova Scotia and has totally been embraced as one of our own – does she “count” as being a Canadian author? How does this work? Emma Donogue is another one that this always confuses me with…)

wony_smallcover

When The Virgin Cure came out, I didn’t fall in love with it. So I was apprehensive about The Witches of New York. It continues Moth’s story. But this time Moth, now Adelaide Thom has embraced her witchy heritage. She is in business with Eleanor St Clair – they run a tea shop in New York City. Wealthy women come to visit them for a variety of problems that they help solve through spells and potions.

When Adelaide runs an ad looking for a shop girl to help Eleanor, Beatrice Dunn shows up and everything changes. Suddenly the women are in danger from those who are starting to become suspicious about the work that they do. In 1888, the women are quite removed from the Salem Witch Trials but there are still those who would harm them for the work that they do. As Beatrice learns to harness her powers, those who think that their work is evil come ever closer.

I really liked this book. There were some issues that I had in terms of the plot – there are a lot of things happening and I’m not convinced that they all came together. I also think that it doesn’t need to be a 500 page book – there’s a lot of set up that had no pay off and we could have started later and gotten to the same place.

BUT.

I loved the atmosphere of this book. McKay does an incredible job of evoking this time and place with something extra. Her cast of characters, the history infused into this book give the whole thing an ethereal quality that had me looking around wondering if spirits were near.

Also, McKay is here for women. Beatrice, Adelaide and Eleanor make up a sisterhood who help each other in life and love and have built a business around helping other women out of the problems created, oftentimes, by men. There are very few men in this book and only one of them is really good – he’s the only one that actually listens to what they have to say. The others are intent on the destruction of these women for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which is that they are evil.

McKay touches on the Salem Witch Trials and the historical persecution of women who didn’t fit the mould. It turns out that one of her own ancestors had been persecuted, accused of being a witch – she was hanged in 1692. So the subject matter feels personal and you can tell as you read.

I think that The Witches of New York has been set up as a series and I am more than OK with it. If you haven’t read The Virgin Cure, I wouldn’t say that it’s necessary in order to enjoy this one. But don’t pass up The Witches of New York if you didn’t love its predecessor.

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