7

CanLit Review: Emancipation Day

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

You guys, I’m getting so much better at this reading CanLit thing. I recently read Wayne Grady’s Emancipation Day and guess what? I really liked it. I might even have loved it.

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Emancipation Day tells the story of Jackson “Jack” Lewis though his eyes, the eyes of his wife Vivian and his father, William Henry. During the war, Jack Lewis enlists in the Navy as a musician, meaning he won’t have to actually see any action, he will just play the sailors onto the boats as they go to fight. He is stationed in Newfoundland, allowing him to leave his family in Windsor.

It seems like a fairly straightforward war love story at first. He meets Vivian out at a bar one evening and walks her home. He plans on seeing her again that week but he gets shipped out – apparently once every six weeks the naval band has to go out on a ship. Jack suffers from terrible seasickness so he doesn’t have to go out again. When he gets back to dry land, he finds Vivian and they take up where they left off.

Vivian’s family is quite wealthy – her father owns a series of stores in the area. Vivian is living with her older sister and her family who do not approve of Jack. There’s something about him that they don’t trust. But Vivian is blinded by her infatuation with this handsome, talented young stranger and she doesn’t listen.

When the war ends, Jack is headed back to Windsor. Vivian is keen to meet her new family and start their lives together. Only, the closer they get to home, the more closed off Jack seems to become. He rarely talked about his family to begin with and Vivian really doesn’t know very much about them.

Emancipation Day illustrates the harsh and sad reality of the one-drop rule and leaves Jack unable to create his own identity. He is handcuffed to a legal definition of his personhood. His family identifies as black but he goes out into the world as white. Their different understandings of race leaves a very wide gap between Jack and his father, one that is never quite broached. The same can be said for Vivian and Jack; Vivian is left to work out the big family secret on her own and Jack is angry at her for not knowing it right away even though he prefers to go through life as a white man.

I think I was shocked at how bad it still was in Canada for blacks at the time. The Lewis family is totally ghettoized by the colour of their skin. The use of the N-word is prevalent by white people and William Henry has no qualms about sending out Jack to get work, knowing that most folks are more willing to do business with someone they perceive as white. I guess we hadn’t come so far since the Underground Railroad.

There were points, early in the novel, where I wasn’t sure about this book. Mainly the time on the boat, filled with naval terms and details of navy life. I found my mind wandering through those bits, hoping to get back to the meat of the story. But the rest of it, I loved. I loved the different perspectives on the same story, the kind of seedy underground that Jack is simultaneously drawn to as a musician, that disgust him as a white man, the historical details of the time and place.

The ending made me wonder if this book wasn’t the history of Grady’s own family. The afterword made me certain. In it, Grady mentions that he originally tried writing an epic family history going back five generations until someone suggested this version to him. I can’t imagine handling my own complex family history like this, with honesty and grace. Emancipation Day is an incredible portrait of a family trying to find their place in the world, shackled by society’s definitions of race.

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13

Heart-stopping Thrillers: The Sandman

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

It’s no secret that I love crime fiction. I especially like Scandinavian crime fiction and get really excited at the prospect of fresh blood on the scene, so to speak.

Given the chance to read Lars Keplar’s new book, The Sandman, I was all over it. Turns out that a) Lars Keplar is actually a pseudonym for husband and wife writers, Alexander Ahndoril and Alexandra Coelho Ahdoril and b) it’s not a brand new series at all. The Sandman is actually the 4th book in a series about Inspector Joona Linna.

In the interest of brevity (and not giving too much away because it’s a complicated book but the element of surprise is obviously incredibly important to this genre) here is the synopsis from Random House:

sandman

During a cold winter night in Stockholm a man is found walking alongside a railway bridge, suffering from hypothermia and legionella. After he’s rushed to the hospital, it’s discovered that, according to a death certificate, the man has been dead for over seven years. He is believed to be a victim of notorious serial killer Jurek Walter, who was arrested years ago by Detective Inspector Joona Linna and sentenced to a life of total isolation in forensic psychiatric care. As Joona Linna investigates where the “dead man” has been all these years, some unexpected evidence leads to the reopening of a cold case. Danger is imminent, and someone needs to get under the skin of the serial killer–fast–as they are running out of time.

Considering this was the 4th in a series, I didn’t feel like I was missing large parts of back story. In fact, I found that this was a complete standalone book (although I want to go back and read the other three). Joona Linna was a completely formed character even without the other books. I got the sense that there was more to the relationships with his colleagues that didn’t get much attention this time, but not enough to distract me and leave me wondering “what’s that about?”

Lars Keplar is following in the fine Scandinavian crime writer tradition of being messed up as f%&^! This book! It was a complete and total thrill ride. You should maybe be prepared not to read this right before bed or in the dark, or really if you’re alone at all. I definitely wouldn’t read it standing at a bus stop alone in the dark. That would be terrifying. I found myself reading strategically – leaving off at a point where I felt the characters were safe for a bit; if I needed to stop reading but I was at a really crazy part, I just kept reading until I had reached the safety point.

A lot happens in this book and it’s all significant. But if you take a peek at the Goodreads comments, you will notice that people were quite put out by the ending. Without giving anything away, the ending is a bit open-ended. As soon as I finished it, I jumped over to Google to see if I could find any evidence that this would not be the final book in the series. If it is…that’s not any kind of closure. Unfortunately, I can’t figure out if there will be another book.

If you are looking for a ridiculous thrill ride that gets your blood pumping on cold, rainy fall days, get yourself a copy of The Sandman. I haven’t enjoyed a thriller like that in a long time.

14

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

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

This is how bad I am: when given the opportunity to read the new Haruki Murakami (that is the first time I’ve managed to write that out correctly on the first try), I thought I was getting my hands on new Kazuo Ishiguro.

Yeah…

Imagine my surprise when that was not the case at all. I initially thought that maybe this would be a tough read – I’d never read a Murakami before and never really wanted to.

But I kind of loved Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.

pilgrimage

When we meet Tsukuru Tazaki he is on the brink of death, contemplating suicide every hour of every day. He had been a part of a close group of 5 friends – they did everything together, together they made up whole people, filled the gaps in each other that were wanting. Even though he had always felt a little bit other in this group – the other 4 all had names that had a colour in them: black, red, white, blue while  Tsukuru Tazaki was colourless – they were his best friends. When his friends cut him out of their lives without an explanation, without any warning, Tsukuru is left numb and confused.

The story moves back and forth between those days leading up to the break and the aftermath, and the present day when 36 year old Tsukuru is embarking on the beginning of a promising relationship with this new woman. She becomes the first person he’s ever told the full story to, the first person he’s ever been open with about the fact that since those friends he’s never really bothered to make any new ones. She encourages him to contact those friends to find out what it was that made them cut him out of their lives. She’s convinced that they won’t be able to have any kind of relationship until he has worked out this emotional blockage, until he can feel secure knowing that not everyone he cares for will just cut him off.

For some reason I was expecting some kind of sci-fi futuristic situation so a story in modern day Tokyo was a pleasant surprise. I loved travelling with Tsukuru to find out what happened, why his friends cut him out. There was a story within a story situation early on the book that I didn’t understand and a fairly graphic sex scene that I could have done without (especially since I still can’t figure out what that achieved) but mostly I couldn’t wait to get back to this very modern tale. Tsukuru is left out in the cold, without any support in his critical years of development. Without friends he wanders through his life, not really caring about anything, always wondering about the friendships that he used to have. He achieves what he wants to professionally but without anyone to share it with, he just kind of bobs along alone.

I’m not anywhere near the loner that Tsukuru is, but I so identified with him. These days we have a tendency to live through our devices without making actual contact with the people we care about. Although Tsukuru’s lack of contact was not his own choice, he didn’t follow that up by going out into the world and finding new friends. Without friends, without the presence of meaningful relationships in his life, Tsukuru is just an empty vessel.

The fact that this book was a translation added an extra layer of intrigue for me. The descriptions of the names of his characters and their meanings are beautiful. There’s a whole passage where Tsukuru’s name and its meaning are described and why his father chose a certain spelling over the more common one. Murakami describes language and the way we use it in different situations to illustrate the state of Tsukuru’s relationships. In one scene, Tsukuru is meeting with an old friend and no longer feels that the casual form of you is appropriate; in English we don’t have these distinctions but I liked having it pointed out to better understand the moment. His prose is incredibly elegant; so much so that I almost found myself holding my breath so as not to disturb the moments he was creating.

I’m glad I thought Murakami was someone else or I never would have given Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage a chance.

PS One last thing: this book is really cool looking. It’s a hardcover but like a tiny one. The actual cover, once you remove the dust jacket, is covered in Japanese train station lines. And I love the hand – each finger a different colour…Just wanted to add that.

9

Like Trying to Read Salman Rushdie: Lucky Us

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

You know when you’re reading a book and you know it’s a good book, well written and such, and you know you probably should like it but you don’t?

That’s what happened with me and Lucky Us by Amy Bloom.

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I was seduced by a number of things with this one. First, beautiful cover design. It’s one of those velvety feeling covers which always gets extra points from me and the lion and the zebra, the beautiful curtains and the tiny planet Earth in the distance – it’s gorgeous. I was curious about how that cover came to be and now having read the book, I still have no idea what it’s supposed to denote.

Secondly, the book jacket told me it was the story of two sisters called Eva and Iris. I’m Eva, and my mother is Iris. I was intrigued by a novel that would pair these names. A silly reason maybe, but there you are. Reading the description I was into it, picturing war-time Hollywood and all the glamour that would come from that.

Instead, it was 234 pages of really terrible things happening. It reminded me of when I read Kate Atkinson’s When Will There Be Good News? When Eva is 11, her father’s wife dies and her mother brings her to her father’s house to see what they can get out of this. Then her mother just leaves her there and Eva is left to live with her father and half sister, Iris. At first Iris is annoyed that this usurper has arrived but eventually Eva becomes a kind of sidekick. After their father steals Iris’ life savings a second time, Iris decides it’s time to get out and try her luck in Hollywood. Eva goes with her.

Things are going OK in Holly wood for a while; Iris is getting small speaking roles and they’ve been able to move into a nice apartment. But then Iris gets caught doing something scandalous and knows she will never work again. Then their father shows up, wanting to be a part of their lives. Eventually the three of them and a make-up artist called Francisco journey back to New York City and try to start over.

It was hard to connect with anyone in this novel because the point of view kept changing. We started out with Eva in the first person, telling the story as it unfolds. Then there are letters from Iris in London anywhere from 3-5 years into the future from where we were in the story. And occasionally we spend a few pages with someone completely different, telling a little story to fill in the gaps.

And nothing good happens to the characters. Some burn to death, others die slowly, one deals with a skin condition her whole life, most of them are struggling with various levels of poverty and it just dragged me down without some hope thrown in there. When we do get back to Eva’s perspective, she’s so apathetic to everything happening around her.

Reading it you know it’s a good novel – it’s beautifully written for one thing. But I felt like I was reading something that I should like, the way that I feel when I try to read Salman Rushdie. But hey, at the end of the day being compared to Salman Rushdie is no bad thing.

Lucky Us is out July 29th.

13

Female Friendships: The Girls From Corona del Mar

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

I’m at the point in my life where relationships with the girls I’ve known since I was in highschool start to become a little more complicated than they ever were before. You start to get wrapped up in your own life and everything that that entails and you stop actively searching out friendships. You never had to work at it before; this phase is an adjustment.

Rufi Thorpe’s The Girls From Corona del Mar addresses this dilemma times 100.

corona del mar

Lorri-Ann and Mia have been best friends since forever. Lorri-Ann was the one that went with Mia when Mia had an abortion at the age of 15 following the decision to lose her virginity to a boy that she didn’t particularly like. Lorri-Ann is the kind of girl that everyone wants to be around: she’s beautiful, smart and just the nicest person ever. Mia is constantly astounded at how good Lorri-Ann is.

But then her dad dies and it seems like Lorri-Ann’s life is one terrible thing after another, like the ‘bad-luck vultures’ are constantly circling and picking apart her life. She gets pregnant at 20 and decides to marry the father of her baby instead of taking her place at university, where she’s earned a scholarship.

This is the point where Mia and Lorri-Ann’s lives split: Mia goes off to Yale, to follow the academic dreams she’s nurtured that get her away from her own imperfect home life and Lorri-Ann marries Jim and has her baby, who is born blue, which then presents a whole other set of problems in Lorri-Ann’s life.

I obsessively read this book in about 4 hours. Sadly, not all in one sitting. But that meant that when I wasn’t reading it, I was thinking about Mia and Lorri-Ann, about what it’s like to watch your best friend’s life implode, even when you’re no longer that close.

Thorpe explores the complexity of female relationships so well. The thing about those friendships you make when you’re a kid is that they are all consuming and far reaching. For the whole rest of your life, no matter how many new friends you make, no one will ever know you the way your childhood friends know you. I think because of where I am in my own life, I related to this book on a visceral level.

I found that the perspective of this novel was an interesting one. The story is told by Mia but it’s mostly the story of Lorri-Ann. It’s like Mia is relating the story to you the way that Lorri-Ann told it to her, complete with all the things that Lorri-Ann was thinking and feeling in those moments but also coloured by how Mia felt about everything during, and then later. I think it made for a more intimate reading experience; it almost felt like sitting down with a friend who’s relating this whole thing to you.

I was totally caught off guard by how much I loved this book.

5

Celebrity Lifestyle: Jennifer, Gwyneth and Me

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

I’ve mentioned often that I am a pupil at the Lainey Gossip School of Celebrity Studies. I love her take on fame and the celebrity eco-system and she’s taught me to take People.com with a helping handful of salt.

I also adored Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project. I think I talk about it less on the blog but in my real life I’m always telling people about that book and how simple she made it sound to change your own happiness quotient.

Enter Rachel Bertsche’s memoir, Jennifer, Gwyneth and Me: The Pursuit of Happiness One Celebrity at a Time. It’s basically the perfect amalgamation of the two!

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After being laid off and deciding to start working from home, Rachel Bertsche starts to feel kind of sloppy. She’s not exercising like she used to, she spends her days in sweat pants because that’s the whole point of working from home and her meals are mainly of the frozen variety. She’s also a celebrity connoisseur and wonders if emulating her favourite celebrities will make her feel more fabulous and together. She decides to find out by emulating Jennifer Aniston’s fitness habits, Gwyneth’s (there’s only one) kitchen prowess, Sarah Jessica Parker’s fashion sense, Jennifer Garner’s approach to marriage and Beyonce’s…well having it all.

While Bertsche’s celebrity worship was a little too eager for me sometimes (Lainey has trained me well, I’m snarky) I really enjoyed this book. I love people’s personal transformations and I really enjoyed the celebrity aspect of it; I thought it was a really clever idea. She would spend some time researching the celebrity’s approach to their facet of life and then implement a few key rules: Don’t eat shit; invest in one statement piece; don’t talk smack about your husband in public.

And it worked! She did start to feel more content, more together, healthier. She read that Jennifer Aniston does bicep curls when she watches TV so she started doing that (I did it last night – excellent idea). She started dressing up for herself, even if she wasn’t going to leave the apartment. She became more conscious of the food she was buying and learned that she loved hosting a dinner party.

But it all also took a lot of TIME. It’s part of Jennifer Aniston’s job to look good. For the rest of us – it’s a struggle to get it all in. By the time Bertsche got to Beyonce and trying to incorporate it all, it was tough to get in the workouts, the cooking time, meditation and looking fabulous. But she was still trying and when she got in some as opposed to none, it still meant she felt a lot better about herself.

Bertsche’s chronicle of her struggle to conceive was an unexpected part of the memoir. As they are trying to get pregnant and ultimately go through IVF, Bertsche uses her celebrity methods to try and cope. Both processes kind of line up perfectly actually – when they are waiting to hear if they were successful, she is trying to emulate Julia Roberts’ calm and meditating which enables her to relax at least some of the time.

I’m probably not going to mirror my life on any celebrities ever. But I appreciated the insightful journey while Bertsche did. And I’m going to keep it up with those TV bicep curls because if it’s good enough for Jennifer Aniston…

6

Gothic Novels: The Quick

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

When I read the description of Lauren Owen’s novel The Quick, I was sold on it. I couldn’t want to dive into this one.

I think I would do you a disservice if I described this book in my own words so, from the inside cover:

London, 1892: James Norbury, a shy would-be poet newly down from Oxford, finds lodging with a charming young aristocrat. Through this new friendship, he is introduced to the drawing rooms of high society and finds love in an unexpected quarter. Then, suddenly, he vanishes without a trace. Unnerved, his sister, Charlotte sets out from their crumbling country estate determined to find him. In the sinister, labyrinthine city that greets her, she uncovers a secret world at the margin, populated by unforgettable characters, including a female rope walker turned vigilante, a street urchin with a deadly secret and the chilling “Doctor Knife.” But the answer to her brother’s disappearance ultimately lies within the doors of one of the country’s preeminent and mysterious institutions: The Aegolius Club, whose members include the most ambitious, and most dangerous men in England. 

The Quick

Firstly, this book is beautiful. The cover design is exquisite and thoughtful and the feel of the dust jacket?!? Velvety – it’s the same texture I chose for my wedding invites for the express purpose of evoking the cover of a book. And when this book sits on your shelf, it’s spine is designed to look like an old leather bound book. I’m a sucker for great book covers.

In order to get to enjoy the full experience of The Quick, you can’t know too much about what it’s about. I thought I was in for a magical Gothic tale – something like The Shadow of the Wind; I thought we were going to spend some time in the seedy underbelly of London at the turn of the last century. And I kind of did, sometimes. But we spent far more time in the fancy drawing rooms of the elite. I’m not complaining – I enjoyed that setting too.

One of the unexpected things about this novel is the amount of viewpoints. Owen jumps around between third and first person perspectives, diary style and straight story telling. At first I wasn’t sure how to feel about this  – was it disjointed? Distracting? Now that I’ve had some time to reflect on it, I can honestly say it’s not. I appreciated the different character narratives – it offered a really layered story. Owen’s talent lies in the fact that she was able to bring all those narratives together again to finish the story completely. I adore a good ending – I’m one of those readers that can forgive nearly all story flaws if I get a great ending. The Quick has an exquisite, delicious, thrilling ending. I got goosebumps, it was so good.

I found that I was holding my breath through a lot of the story. The characters are all so unsavoury, there is so much cloak and dagger stuff with the club and the people that are a part of it. So convincing was the idea of The Aegolius Club that I actually had to look it up to see if such a thing had in fact existed. That was before I got to the part where Owen explained what the deal was with The Aegolius Club. Somehow Owen has managed to create a completely believable world based on total fantasy.

There are many opportunities for goosebumps in this book. I enjoyed the ride, and as I mentioned, the ending was a delight. I’m curious as to what Owen’s follow up book will be.