4

Review: The Child

Every summer it seems that the bookish market is inundated with books that promise to thrill you. In the last few years, with the rise of the Gone Girls and The Girl on the Trains, we’re constantly promised that this next book will follow in their glorious footprints.

It becomes hard to figure out which books are the real deal, and what is just noise.

Fiona Barton’s The Child is being marketed as exactly this: the heir to Flynn and Hawkins.

child

In the wake of gentrification throughout London, a building has been razed giving up it’s decades long secret: the skeletal remains of a baby. Kate Waters, a journalist bored by the directives to write about celebrities and royals, thinks that the case of the Building Site Baby could be something interesting to really sink her teeth into. Her efforts lead her to: Emma, an editor working from home, keeping secrets from her much older husband; Angela, whose baby vanished from the hospital more than 40 years ago; and Jude, Emma’s mother, a woman who has a very complicated relationship with her daughter and the truth.

I don’t think it’s the same kind of thrill ride that fans of Gone Girl would be looking for. Even for those of you looking for a tense, psychological thrill ride, I’m not sure The Child is for you.

But I did enjoy it as something else. A kind of exploration into the relationships of women, with each other, with the men in our lives, with the truth.

I saw the ending coming a mile away – which, if you’ve been a visitor to this blog for any amount of time, you will know is RARE. And even though I knew exactly how this was all going to go, I still enjoyed the getting there. Barton has done an excellent job painting these women at various stages of their lives, as they make decisions that may or may not have ramifications in the years to come.

I read this book in two sittings, completely absorbed in it, even if it might not have been the thrill ride I assumed I was in for. Barton does an excellent job layering the story and allows it to spider out in a number of directions that ultimately, are completely connected. There was a certain amount of enjoyment in being in on the twists – never did I feel like I wanted the getting there to hurry up. It didn’t feel drawn out or unnecessarily complicated.

It’s a safe recommendation for those who like the journey and don’t demand a shocking payoff.

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

4

Reading about sports

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

I almost never watch baseball.

And yet, I was intrigued by Stacey May Fowles’ collection of essays about her love for the game. Baseball Life Advice: Loving the Game That Saved Me isn’t a book “about” baseball; it’s a book about loving something that better helps to understand yourself.

baseball

Fowles has always loved baseball but in 2011, baseball came to mean something more to her. Having recently been diagnosed with PTSD, years after a sexual assault, she needed baseball in a way she hadn’t before. The baseball season became a way to organize her days, to help her do her therapy, to get back out into the world and find herself again.

Fowles later made the decision to leave the security (and stress) of her full-time magazine marketing job and write about the game she loves. These essays allow her to ruminate on certain aspects of the game and the relationship she has with it. She talks about bat-flipping, about the politics of booing, bandwagon fans, and injuries.

I wasn’t sure that I was going to be able to relate to this collection that much – my knowledge and understanding of baseball can best be termed ‘basic’.

But then I read the essay titled “Watching Like a Girl”. And then I found myself nodding along. She talks about the stereotypes of female fans, the assumption that you are at a game because your partner likes the sport, the availability of pink, sparkly team gear, how you are quizzed on your sports knowledge to test if you are really a fan.

In talking about a piece that actively looked to spotlight the stereotypes of female fans, she writes:

…it reinforces the antagonistic attitude many male fans have about women being in “their” ballpark – as if a bunch of girls chatting about wedding plans instead of paying attention to the action is more off-putting than “real fans” yelling homophobic slurs and harassing people around them. It points to an ingrained belief that women don’t belong, which is exacerbated by an appalling gender imbalance in terms of who is “allowed” to talk publicly about “Dad’s game.”

Fowles is honest and open about some of the struggles she has been through and calls out her beloved sport for not being as inclusive as they should be. Baseball Life Advice is more about the emotional connection fans have to a game and I found the angle refreshing and so very interesting. It made me kind of wish that I had that kind of love for a game, that maybe I need to give baseball another chance.

6

Updating Othello

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

I am not familiar with Shakespeare’s Othello (we didn’t cover it in school, never really enjoyed reading plays and I know it’s Shakespeare but here we are) but I will always love Tracy Chevalier’s The Girl with a Pearl Earring SO given the chance to read New Boy

New Boy is part of a project from Hogarth that updates Shakespeare’s plays, giving them modern contexts from acclaimed and bestselling novelists of today.

(Honestly, I had no idea this was a thing and just looked at the site and want to immediately read at least 4 of the others)

new boy

In this iteration of Othello, Osei Kokote, or “O” as he lets people call him, is the new boy at a D.C. school in the 1970s. Osei is the son of a diplomat and has gone to four school in six years – he is an expert at being the new boy. He’s also the only Black child. Golden child Dee is given the job of showing Osei around. She’s pretty, popular and White. Osei and Dee strike up a friendship that blooms into a romance within minutes – this is the sixth grade after all.

Ian is used to getting his way and has been ruling the playground for the entire year. He gets the best spot on the playground, picks teams for kickball, demands lunch money or goods and generally bullies those he sees as less-than. When he sees Osei getting along so easily with Dee, he decides that he’s going to make life extremely difficult for the new boy.

I got the rundown of Othello from my mom, one of those instances where your parents surprise you by how much they know (love you, Mom!). And from what I understand, this book is pretty true to the major themes of its source material. Ian manages to trick Osei into thinking that Dee is two-timing him, that she’s bringing strawberries in for another boy, the most popular boy on the playground, a natural partner for the golden girl. Osei thinks that Dee is just like everyone else, that she was interested in the novelty of his brown skin but doesn’t actually see him.

In the end, the supporting players take the brunt of Ian’s malice in the most tragic of ways.

I thought it was brilliant of Chevalier to set the tragedy of Othello on a playground. I felt intense nostalgia for the politics and hierarchies of the playground, how you feel like such a big deal when you’re the oldest kids there. And how the littlest things, someone stealing a pencil case, can ripple out through the entire school.

I appreciated that not all of the action took place on the playground or in the school. Chevalier gives voice to Osei’s experiences at his other schools in New York City, London and Rome, what it’s like in his birth nation of Ghana, what life is like at home with his older sister who is learning to embrace her identity as a Black woman surrounded by so many White ones.

Osei’s anger and distrust builds throughout the novel, encouraged by the antics of Ian, the naiveté of Dee, and the discrimination from some of the teachers until the final horrifying moments of this little book.

New Boy makes Othello accessible for plebs like me. From what I can tell, it honours the spirit of the original while creating a story that has enough to say on its own.

9

Option B

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

I remember when I heard that Sheryl Sandberg, COO at Facebook and author of Lean In, had lost her husband suddenly. I had a visceral reaction to the news, giving voice to my biggest fear.

option B

Two weeks after he passed, she wrote an incredibly moving post on Facebook about him and her loss. If you read it, there’s no way you didn’t cry.

In Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, Sandberg builds on that post as she talks about her grief, how it affects her life, and how she and her children are trying to build a new one. And in what I have come to learn is typical Sheryl Sandberg fashion, she also attempts to understand what’s happening, how grief affects our brains and what we can do to feel some kind of joy again.

The title of the book came from a friend:

Just weeks after losing Dave, I was talking to Phil about a father-child activity. We came up with a plan for someone to fill in for Dave. I cried to Phil, “But I want Dave.” He put his arm around me and said “Option A is not available. So let’s just kick the shit out of Option B.”

Life is never perfect. We all live some form of Option B. This book is to help us all kick the shit out of it.

As was the case with Lean In, I know that there are lots of people who scoff at the efforts she has made. Those who say that since she has loads of money and can afford to pay people to help her with the things that she can’t do, that she doesn’t understand what ‘real’ people go through when they grieve.

But once again, Sandberg is the first person to say that she isn’t the typical person. That she does have access to resources and supports that not everyone else has. It doesn’t mean that this book doesn’t have something for others going through the same, or similar experiences.

I personally found this book moving, honest, unflinching and ultimately helpful. She works with Adam Grant (author of Originals, psychologist and expert in how we find meaning in our lives) to research how we find strength in adversity. Together they tell the stories of different people they know who have gone through a range of experiences: rape survivors, refugees, parents who have lost children to disease, women who have experienced miscarriages or stillbirths.

And like Malcolm Gladwell, Sandberg and Grant use these personal stories to illustrate the research that they have done, to show readers how they can benefit from both. With chapters like “Kicking the Elephant Out of the Room”, “The Platinum Rule of Friendship” (treat others as they want to be treated), and “Taking Back Joy”, Sandberg and Grant have created a helpful manual for anyone who is dealing with more than their share of pain and sadness.

Sandberg shares so much of herself in this book – I can’t imagine how draining the process of writing was. Sections of her journal in the months after Dave died are in the book, as well as part of the eulogy she delivered and a letter she wrote to him to say goodbye when she decided to start looking forward instead of back. She shares about falling apart at work, sitting on the floor and screaming, the despair she felt going to recitals and parents’ nights solo, the realities of the year of firsts.

And still, going through all that, losing the love of her life, she wrote this book to help others experiencing the same or similar.

If you or someone you know is going through something, I wouldn’t hesitate in picking up this book.

All proceeds from the book go to OptionB.org, a non-profit initiative to help people build resilience and find meaning in the face of adversity.

19

Into the Water

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

The Girl on the Train was a phenomenon. Paula Hawkins’ follow up novel, Into the Water, was hotly anticipated. Given the chance to get my hands on a copy, I jumped all over it.

But it’s difficult to live up to that kind of hype, for a different book to stand on its own merits when compared to the achievements of its juggernaut of an older sibling.

I could not finish with Into the Water fast enough.

Sadly, I don’t mean that as a compliment. This book fatigued me.

tom tired

Nel Abbot, single mother of a teenage daughter, has been found dead in the water at the bottom of her garden. The river that runs through the little town she lived in has claimed the lives of a number of women for years. Two months earlier, a 15 year old girl had drowned herself in the water. Nel herself had been fascinated by the water, the stories of the “troublesome” women that found their end in its depths, and had been working on a book telling their stories.

What happened is told, piece by painstaking piece by a variety of residents in the small English town including: Nel’s estranged sister, angry at her over something that happened years and years ago; Nel’s daughter, who has been keeping all kinds of secrets from everyone; the school’s headmistress, married to the police chief, who also has secrets from his past; a teacher, who has to hide how much he misses Kate, the girl who drowned herself before Nel died.

It’s a lot.

Hawkins tries to make the point that the world is cruel to women, that historically water had been used to purify those women accused of witchcraft, that perhaps this is something that is still going on. There are any number of sinister characters in the book that could be capable of sending women to watery deaths. Hawkins isn’t content to populate the book with red herrings, or subject readers to so many first person narratives, she also has to weave a mystical element to the game.

Into the Water wasn’t a difficult read, or a long one, and yet the time I spent with it felt like I was treading water fully clothed and I was losing the battle.

I so appreciate the point that Hawkins was trying to make because the world is so obviously cruel, especially to women. But this book and it’s similarity to The Girl on the Train (memory loss, men’s power over women, unlikeable narrators) without the well-paced plot and tense atmosphere just didn’t work for me.

6

Saints for All Occasions

I have a thing for books about dysfunctional families.

I think that this is a newer discovery of mine – I’ve always been drawn to books about big families with lots of secrets but I didn’t think too much about it until Sarah @ Sarah’s Bookshelves mentioned the same.

The Nest. Dead Letters. The Roanoke Girls. Crazy Rich Asians. Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty. The Family Fang

Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan.

I’d only read one of Sullivan’s books before, The Engagements, and while I liked it, I wouldn’t say it bowled me over. Still, I enjoyed it enough to mean to read her other work (Maine, Commencement). Then, I heard about Saints for All Occasions.

saints

Sisters Nora and Theresa, 21 and 17 respectively, come over on the boat from Ireland to Boston. Nora, to marry Charlie from back home who has moved to Boston for a better life, near others in his family who have made the move; Theresa because Nora couldn’t bear to leave her behind, having been more like a mother to her their whole lives. Nora, serious and hardworking, gets to the business of building a life for her and Charlie in Boston. Theresa falls in love with Boston and everything it has to offer: dances, clothes she’d never dream of having back home, cute young men.

When Theresa gets pregnant, it’s up to Nora to come up with a plan that will have ramifications for both women, and their family, for decades to come. And when there’s an unexpected death in the family, everyone will have to come to terms with what happened all those years ago.

The story is told in chunks of time, from alternating viewpoints. Nora, Theresa, Nora’s children. You find out on the first or second page that it is Patrick who has died, but even in death he is a major character in this book; the motivation for so much. As the family comes to terms with his passing, you can see what an impact he had on all of them: for Nora’s son John, estranged from his brother Patrick for the last 8 months, coming to terms with what he thought he knew about their relationship; daughter Bridget, the only girl, who is planning on having a baby with her girlfriend but who has never officially told the family that she is a lesbian; for Brian, the baby, who worked alongside Patrick every day, at a loose end, not sure what’s next.

Sullivan has weaved a story around this family, threaded with loss and faith and rules of a Church that once had the final word in all. It’s a story about motherhood and love and family ties and what it looks like when your life doesn’t pan out exactly the way you planned it to.

I devoured this book in a day, all 333 pages of it. I loved spending time with the Raffertys, finding out just what had happened all those years ago. Sullivan is skilled at telling you just enough to be satisfied, knowing that is still holding out on you. I almost rated it 5 stars but, while I appreciated the ending, when it came, it felt a bit rushed. I wouldn’t have blinked at another 40 pages of story.

Still, if you’re a fan of Sullivan’s, or enjoy dysfunctional families like I do, this will be a winner for you. I also think that fans of Ann Patchett’s, or Brooklyn by Colm Toibin will find something to appreciate in this book. And, I’d totally endorse it as a beach read!

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

 

23

A cherry on top: Rich People Problems

When I finished reading China Rich Girlfriend in 2015, I immediately began looking forward to book three. So to say that I was anticipating Rich People Problems would be a massive understatement.

From the first page of Crazy Rich Asians, I knew that I had found something special, something new. And it’s been a love affair that I will not shut up about ever since.

With this much expectation, Rich People Problems could have been a massive letdown.

BUT IT WASN’T.

I cackled and screeched and laughed my way through this third book with unconcealed glee.

RPB

When the matriarch of the family, Su Yi Shang becomes ill, the Youngs, Chengs, Leongs and Shangs all come back to Tyersall Park to stake a claim to her massive fortune. The huge 64 acre property in the middle of Singapore becomes the scene of family scheming, backstabbing and hysterics.

Look, if you haven’t read the first two books, the plot of this one won’t mean anything. If you’ve read the first two and have yet to read the third (how I envy you!) know that all your favourite characters are back and in fine form: Kitty Pong and her stepdaughter Colette Bing are embroiled in a stealth battle of status across the globe, Eddie Cheng is up to all the same tricks while collecting watches and forcing his family to dress just like him, and Astrid and Charlie Wu are trying to make things work while their exes are hell-bent on destroying their lives.

(Also, can we talk about this cover? SO CHIC)

I read this over the long weekend, in the sunshine, and it was glorious. I was messaging Catherine @ The Gilmore Guide to Books (who has a review up that you should read even though I haven’t yet because I wanted to write this first) because I knew she had read it. I had to talk to someone about what I was reading. There were moments, I swear to you, I was screaming in the garden because I was delighted by the audacity of this book. Kevin Kwan is a genius.

Among other things, this book includes a completely over the top Bollywood proposal, a kidnapping at an elite private school, a Nigel Barker photo shoot for Tattle magazine, and plastic surgery for a stupidly expensive FISH. I mean, what more do you WANT?

Look, the world is a garbage fire and it seems to get worst every day. Kevin Kwan’s series is one of the only things I know of that guarantees to take you out of this world. His delicious, gorgeous, over-the-top world filled with intrigues big and small, peopled with some of the most memorable characters, will thrill you. It will put a big ol’ smile on your face. And when you’re done, I’m pretty sure you will join me in obsessively reading Crazy Rich Asians casting/production news.

If you haven’t read these books yet, get on it. If you are waiting to read Rich People Problems, don’t.

Rich People Problems was the cherry on top of a very decadent, perfect, wonderful sundae.

Huge thanks to Penguin Random House Canada for making my dreams come true a little earlier with an ARC of this book.