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Peak storytelling: The Nickel Boys

The first thing that struck me about Colson Whitehead’s new novel, The Nickel Boys, was the beautiful simplicity of the cover. A large red square with a white border and two young Black men standing at the edge of the red – it is ART.

The second thing that struck me about this book was that it was released in July when it’s likely to be a heavy hitter come awards season. It is surprising to me that a book with this much publishing heft behind it wasn’t held for October.

Lucky for us that we get to read this so much sooner.

You have to be ready for this book though. It will destroy you.

The Nickel Boys is based on the real-life reform school in Florida that operated for 111 years, devastating the lives of thousands of children.

the nickel boys

Elwood Curtis is college-bound. Living with his grandmother in the Black enclave of Frenchtown in segregated Tallahassee, Elwood has big dreams for himself. Listening to the speeches of Dr Martin Luther King, he takes the idea that he is as good as anyone else to heart. One bad decision, an innocent mistake, and he is sentenced to time at the Nickel Academy, a reform school that will provide the intellectual and moral training their delinquent charges lack.

In reality, the ‘school’ is a chamber of horrors that sexually and physically abuses the children in its care (I cannot stress enough that the students were CHILDREN). Elwood figures if he keeps his head down and ‘does his time’, he can get out of there and move on with his life relatively quickly. But seeing only the good in the world is next to impossible in a place like the Nickel Academy and alongside his friend Turner, Elwood has to make some difficult decisions to survive.

Colson Whitehead is a master storyteller at the peak of his craft. Every page, every paragraph, every word has been chosen to cause maximum damage to his reader. Whitehead spares none of us with this story. The abuse depicted is so casual, you almost miss it! You almost miss heinous descriptions of abuse because Whitehead wants you to understand the everyday reality faced by these kids. It was just a part of their day-to-day! I think that by doing it this way, he makes The Nickel Boys palatable to a wider audience. You can’t dismiss this one as too graphic to read. And this story needs to be read, it’s important.

The Nickel Boys is a marvel of storytelling from beginning to end. When I got to end, when I realized how all the pieces fit together to form a DEVASTATING conclusion, I sobbed. Straight up sobbed. It’s the kind of book that knocked the breath right out of me.

I can see this book as a movie or a mini-series. It has HBO or Oscar-bait written all over it should that happen. It’s the story from a dark chapter in American history, told by one of America’s best story-tellers. If you haven’t read it already, I cannot stress enough that you need to.

Thanks to Penguin Random House of Canada for providing me with an ARC of this book in exchange for honest reviews.

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Review: Star-Crossed

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

We are smack dab in the middle of summer and I hope you have found some solid summer reading picks for your beach bags!

Or for cramming in your bag to sneak in a park near your office, whatever works for you this time of year. I’m definitely not getting my reading done near a body of water but I am using naptimes to sit quietly on the front porch (deck? Balcony? I’m never sure) and read outside.

One of the books that I have loved this summer is Minnie Darke’s Star-Crossed.

From Goodreads:

When childhood sweethearts Justine (Sagittarius and serious skeptic) and Nick (Aquarius and true believer) bump into each other as adults, a life-changing love affair seems inevitable. To Justine, anyway. Especially when she learns Nick is an astrological devotee, whose decisions are guided by the stars, and more specifically, by the horoscopes in his favorite magazine. The same magazine Justine happens to write for. As Nick continues to not fall headlong in love with her, Justine decides to take Nick’s horoscope, and Fate itself, into her own hands. But, of course, Nick is not the only Aquarius making important life choices according to what is written in the stars.

star crossed

This was a bubbly, fun, clever, joyful read for me. I am a Pisces and fully buy into astrology (and tarot cards and mediums and anything else that connects us to the other side and/or fate) and this book really allowed me to lean into that. The book is structured around the signs of the zodiac, following Justine and Nick over the course of a full calendar year, starting in Aquarius. I cannot even fathom the level of expertise that Darke possesses when it comes to the stars!

While we follow Justine and Nick as their paths cross and Justine decides to help out fate a little, we also get glimpses into the lives of other horoscope readers, making decisions based on Justine’s ‘predictions.’ If you’re a Capricorn, you probably think the entire premise of this book is ridiculous. But I guarantee that the Libras and Cancers reading this feel like Star-Crossed is speaking to them. This book made me want to go out and learn everything about astrology! And I’m already that person that goes “oh my god are you a ____?”

I’m loving that romantic comedy is having a bit of a revival in books. Star-Crossed is absolutely a part of the movement and I thoroughly enjoyed every page. I’m honestly thinking about giving this one a re-read at some point.

5

More than just another thriller: A Good Enough Mother

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

You know how sometimes a book is marketed a certain way and then you read it and you come away going “huh, that’s not what I thought it would be”?

That’s what happened for me with A Good Enough Mother by Bev Thomas.

From Goodreads:

good enough

Ruth Hartland is a psychotherapist with years of experience. But professional skill is no guard against private grief. The mother of grown twins, she is haunted by the fact that her beautiful, difficult, fragile son Tom, a boy who never “fit in,” disappeared a year and a half earlier. She cannot give up hope of finding him, but feels she is living a kind of half-life, waiting for him to return.

Enter a new patient, Dan–unstable and traumatized–who looks exactly like her missing son. She is determined to help him, but soon, her own complicated feelings, about how she has failed her own boy, cloud her professional judgement. And before long, the unthinkable becomes a shattering reality….

Paula Hawkins (whose marketing team is definitely Patient Zero for the whole ‘Girl’ phenomenon) blurbs the book. Everything about it screams psychological thriller. Maybe a touch of domestic noir. I thought I was in for something like The Woman in the Window, maybe something like The Widow by Fiona Barton.

Instead, A Good Enough Mother is more a meditation on loss, on motherhood, on the ways that women make room for children and a career, on the thousand ways that that works and doesn’t work. Ruth loses her son and spends her days going over all the different ways that she could go back and undo that loss. She shoulders the blame from a lifetime of being the one in her marriage to try and make room for both her family and her career.

I liked the thriller subplot to this one – I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what Dan’s deal was and that plot’s ending was pretty devastating. But I thought the book’s strength was that it was so much more than a thriller and I wish that it had been marketed as more than just that book that will keep you up at night racing through pages.

I suspect that A Good Enough Mother will be passed over by a lot of readers who think they have already read this book many times over and that’s a shame. It deserves better.

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Review: Normal People

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

Readers love Sally Rooney. She is a young Irish writer whose debut novel, Conversations With Friends, seemed to set the literary world on fire. It was nominated 2018 Swansea University International Dylan Thomas Prize, and the 2018 Folio Prize

Her second novel, Normal People (which at this point is decidedly less new as I took my sweet time actually putting a post up after we already had to wait an extra year to get it in Canada) was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2018, was named Irish Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards, Waterstone’s Book of the Year 2018, and it won the Costa Book Award for the Novel category. It was long-listed for the 2019 Dylan Thomas Prize and the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Basically Sally Rooney is a literary heavy hitter.

You know where I’m going with this don’t you?

Normal People wasn’t really my jam.

normal people

It’s about these two teenagers, Connell and Marianne, who are from the same kind of crappy Irish town. Marianne is from a wealthy, super dysfunctional family and Connell is the son of their house cleaner. He’s super popular, a student athlete, she has no friends and is incredibly private. They form an unlikely friendship which becomes romantic and they have sex every chance they get over the course of their last year of school. A year later and they are both at Trinity in Dublin and their paths cross again. The novel checks in on them periodically as they continue to grow and change but ultimately find their way back to each other.

Initially I liked the prose. It’s obvious that Rooney can write. She’s able to do a lot in few words. While this impressed me, it also held me at a bit of a distance – I never got to the point where I cared about either Connell or Marianne. I did get kind of darker One Day vibes but unfortunately I loved the movie more than the book (cardinal sin).

And while I appreciated that the ending was a bit open – there are infinite ways the reader can imagine their story ending – I just didn’t care about what happened to either of them. Normal People was missing the kind of pathos I’ve come to expect from a book by an Irish writer. Ultimately, when Connell and Marianne are together, they will always revert to the people they were back in their hometown. When I finished reading this, I couldn’t help but feel that the whole thing, their relationship, their push and pull through life, was about sex. Their early romantic relationship was so all consuming that it suffocated any chance of developing into more.

5

Daisy Jones & The Six

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

In my last post, I talked about how I was feeling the urge to read non-fiction and today I’m going to talk about a fiction book that I really loved hahaha

Nothing if not consistent right?

To be fair, I read a couple of non-fiction books (back-to-back!) when we were at my in-laws’ and I felt zero guilt about it which was nice.

But I had been waiting and waiting for a copy of Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones & The Six to show up at my door and when it did, I needed to read it RIGHT AWAY.

reid_9781524798628_jkt_all_r1.indd

Daisy Jones & The Six is the story of a fictional 70’s band. It’s told in a series of interviews from the band, their stories don’t always match up as time changes the their memories. Their road to stardom, the groupies, the dynamics within the band, how songs were written and what contributed to the end of the dream are all laid bare.

This book is surrounded by a LOT of hype. If you spend any time on bookstagram, you’ve definitely seen it in your feed many times over. It’s a Reese’s Book Club pick and Reese is also producing it as an Amazon miniseries.

So by the time I finally got my hot little hands on this book, I was also a little bit worried that it wouldn’t live up to the expectations I had built for it.

Twenty pages in:

Daisy: I had absolutely no interest in being someone else’s muse.
I am not a muse.
I am the somebody.
End of fucking story.

Yeah, this book was very much in my wheelhouse.

I. Loved. This. Book.

I loved that, despite the number of men involved in the story, set in a masculine time in a masculine industry, this story was a feminist one. I loved that the women decided their own futures, were in charge of their own destinies. I loved how fully formed each woman was – even a ‘peripheral’ character like Simone came to us as a whole person with her own story.

I loved that Jenkins Reid told an entire story via interview. I loved how layered this made the story, how the events were told from different perspectives, experienced differently by the players. I loved that it was a story about falling in love with yourself, about understanding one’s weaknesses and finding a way to live with them anyway. I loved what the novel had to say about love and marriage and working together and rock ‘n’ roll and what it’s like to be the girl in the room.

Such is Jenkins Reid’s talent that I forgot at times that I was reading about a fictional band. I definitely had to stop myself from googling things more than once. Daisy is a flawed heroine, someone who makes terrible decisions and hurts the people around her but you still can’t help but root for her, to be dazzled by her (fictional) talent. I miss her already.

Daisy Jones & The Six made me laugh, cry, cringe, gasp and everything in between. Taylor Jenkins Reid has the ability to make me care so much about the characters she creates – this was true when I read After I Do, still true for The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and it holds up now. If I had to pick a favourite between Evelyn and Daisy, I honestly don’t think that I could.

If you’re worried the book won’t live up to the hype, don’t be. This is a book that will sit with you long after you finish the last page. It’s the kind of book that you’ll see on the bus, the beach, at the park – in short, everywhere.

 

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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.

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The Hiding Place

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

You know how there are certain times of year that have piles and piles of new thrillers ready for you to read? This is definitely one of those times of year as people get ready to escape chillier climes for sunshine and beach reading.

C.J. Tudor’s new book, The Hiding Place, is definitely a great book for reading poolside. This isn’t to be confused with Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place which is about something very, very different.

hiding place

Joe Thorne has come home, a place he never thought he’d willingly come back to. Arnhill is a little village in the north of England, marked by the rise and fall of the coal mine. The cottage that Joe rents was the sight of a horrific murder suicide; a teacher at the school killed her son and then herself. Joe isn’t bothered by living in the same place that was so recently the sight of so much horror – he’s here to keep an eye on a friend from the past, to make sure that something that happened years ago isn’t happening again.

If you read Tudor’s previous novel, The Chalk Man, this one might feel familiar. Both feature rather unlikable middle-aged men who were a part of a particular kind of friend group in their youth, trying to piece together what happened years ago and what relevance, if any, they have to what’s going on in the present day.

But The Hiding Place has a creeping element of horror that was unexpected. Horror is not a genre I ever read but I was surprised to find that I enjoyed it, probably because it was done with a light touch. I thought that I knew how the story was going to end and I definitely guessed part of it, but Tudor did a better job than I realized of obfuscating the mystery.

I’m trying to find more to write about this book but I’m struggling. I liked it, I enjoyed reading it, I’ll probably pass it along to friends who I think would enjoy it. But it’s not the kind of book the benefits from a whole lot of dissection. Some books are just meant to be enjoyed on a beach, or a plane, by a pool, or apres ski. The Hiding Place wouldn’t be out of place in any of those spots.