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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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A sexy romp: The Wedding Date

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

I first heard about Jasmine Guillory’s The Wedding Date from Roxane Gay. She was the first to tweet about her enjoyment of this book, which put it on my radar. I kept seeing it after that (one of those cases where awareness suddenly shows you something everywhere) and finally, I got the chance to read it.

wedding date

The premise of The Wedding Date is a simple one. Sexy Drew Nichols is dreading being a groomsman at his ex and best friend’s wedding. The night he checks into his hotel, he ends up getting stuck in an elevator with Alexa Monroe and decides to ask her if she’d be his pretend girlfriend at the rehearsal dinner and the wedding. Uncharacteristically, she says yes.

Their chemistry is insane and what begins as a pretend relationship, turns into something more as they find ways to spend more time with each other. Each are juggling their own baggage, their careers, but can’t deny that there’s something special here. However, because of the way things started, both continue to question whether what they have is actually real or just playing the part. Does Drew do this with lots of women? Is Alexa just a fetish for him?

I really enjoyed this book. It was a fun, sexy romp through California that made me smile. Is this book going to change your life? Probably not. But it’s so fun and right now that’s sometimes all I need from a book.

I appreciated so much about The Wedding Date. I liked that she’s black and he’s white, that they kind of have to address that without that being the focus of the book. I really appreciated that the sex was actually hot and not just cringey and kind of gross. It was empowering in its way.

I also appreciated that Drew and Alexa are fully formed characters. They both have their own baggage (he has maybe not been completely honest about the state of his relationship with the bride, she tends to overthink everything and not allow herself to fully enjoy anything), they are both successful professionals who have their sh*t together, and they have to figure out how a life together might work.

I liked that The Wedding Date didn’t ask very much of me. It’s confident in its ability to be a charming, sexy, fun read. I’ve already loaned this book out and am getting more positive feedback. I think if you go in prepared to accept this book for what it is, you’re going to enjoy the ride.

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Seven Fallen Feathers

I’ve struggled with how to write about Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City by Tanya Talaga.

Not only is the subject matter difficult, but what more could I say that Talaga hasn’t already said better?

But shying away from talking about this book, about what happened, is part of the problem. So here we go.

seven fallen feathers

Seven Fallen Feathers tells the stories of Jethro, Curran, Robyn, Paul, Reggie, Kyle and Jordan. Forty years after recommendations were made to keep Indigenous children safe when they were sent away from home for school, these seven Indigenous youth were left to their own devices and lost their lives. None of the recommendations had ever been put in place. None of their deaths were ever properly investigated.

The choice that Indigenous youth in remote communities face is a difficult one: stay at home and receive nothing more than a Grade 8 education, or leave home and move to a city and attend a secondary school in a strange place without your relatives to keep you safe.

Jethro, Curran, Robyn, Paul, Reggie, Kyle and Jordan all moved to Thunder Bay, Ontario to attend secondary school. None of them had ever been to a “big” city and things that we take for granted, strip malls and fast food, were all completely new to them. They moved into boarding houses, sometimes with cousins or distant relatives. They made new friends, and experimented with alcohol – like all kids at their age do.

Five of them were found dead in the rivers surrounding Lake Superior, despite their families claiming they were good swimmers and would never be in the water in the middle of the winter, one died in the hall of her boarding house, and one inexplicably collapsed in his kitchen. Seven years after Jethro, the first boy, was found, an inquest was finally held after the death of Reggie.

Seven Fallen Feathers takes a hard look at Canada’s relationship with Indigenous communities. Talaga, a journalist, digs deeply into the families and histories of these forgotten children. A lot of them have family histories with residential schools, a legacy whose pain and suffering is a burden still being carried by new generations.

This book is brutal in that it looks at the completely unnecessary deaths of promising young people. They left the security of their communities for a place that was totally unknown to them, a place that was not welcoming, teeming with racist overtures.

But this book is also completely necessary. It opened my eyes to something that I didn’t want to see. I think Seven Fallen Feathers is a book that all Canadians should read. It’s the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the wrongs Canada has committed against Indigenous Peoples but it’s a very important start.

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Little Fires Everywhere is a marvel

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

When I first read Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, I wasn’t sure that I liked it. But the more I thought about it, the more it affected me, the better I understood it.

When Little Fires Everywhere came out and it started to show up all over my social media feeds, I was feeling left out! So I was thrilled when a copy showed up at my door.

little fires everywhere

In Shaker Heights, a planned community, everything has always been just so. Homes are painted in certain colours to complement their styles, unsightly garbage is collected behind the homes so no one has to see it, and schools are laid out so that children can walk to them without crossing a single street.

Elena Richardson has lived in Shaker Heights for her entire life and embodies it’s spirit. She, her husband, and four children live in a large home, have a housekeeper, and attend the right kinds of functions. When Mia, a free spirited artist, and her daughter, Pearl, rent Elena’s property, no one has any idea how things will end. As Pearl becomes enmeshed in the Richardson family and as the youngest Richardson, Izzy, becomes closer with Mia, all of them are heading for a collision that will rock the foundation of their lives.

And when a Chinese American baby is adopted by the Richardson’s friends after being ‘abandoned’ by her overwhelmed birth mother, everyone picks a side.

You all know that I’ve been struggling with my reading lately. And initially, I didn’t get time for more than a few pages of Little Fires Everywhere. I wasn’t sure that I was going to love this book like everyone else. But then, miracle of miracles, I had an entire day to spend with it. And I finished the whole thing, greedily turning pages, simultaneously racing through them and wanting to slow down and make it last longer.

Celeste Ng is a marvel. How she manages to craft a novel that covers so much, that sees so much humanity in 336 pages, I will never know. It is a portrait of motherhood, of friendships, of the way secrets tug at the fabric of our lives. It is about mothers and daughters, about the way class systems shape our communities, about being an outsider in the kind of community that is held up as a beacon of progress.

Little things about this book bowled me over. The way Elena Richardson is always Mrs Richardson, never Elena. But Mia is always just Mia, despite the fact that they are likely contemporaries. Ng manages to create a sense of distance with just three little letters. The story moves between points of view seamlessly, so that you don’t even notice it’s happening. Each character is given such depth and history in a short amount of time – really, it’s incredible what Ng has managed to capture in this book.

Little Fires Everywhere touches on racism and classism but never in a way that feels heavy handed or over done. Written with the pace of a thriller, this book is a knock out for book club or your more literarily-inclined friends.

I loved this book. I wish I could read it again for the first time.

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.

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Read it: The Hate U Give

If not for my book club, I’m not sure that I would have read The Hate U Give anytime soon.

Oh, it was on my list. But without the book club pressure, the impetus to get it read by a certain date, I’m not sure when I would have got to it.

Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give is BRILLIANT. For real, if there’s one book I would recommend to everyone this summer, this is it.

From Goodreads:

Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.

But what Starr does or does not say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.

It’s really hard to overstate the importance of this book. It should probably be required reading in schools. Thomas has given us a gift with her debut novel.

hate you giveI was emotionally invested in this book really quickly. Thomas’ characters are bold, written with heart, they imprint on readers very quickly. Starr is straddling the middle ground between these two worlds – her neighbourhood with childhood friends, complex family dynamics and violence born of a lifestyle that is necessary to survive with just the basics, and her prep school an hour away, a white boyfriend who has never seen where Starr lives, working hard for an education her parents want so badly for her while handling micro aggressions from girls that are supposed to be her friends.

Thomas is able to deftly handle so many different angles in this book – of Starr, caught in the middle of everything; her parents, fearful for her safety should she speak out; the police, including her uncle who needs time to work out what this means for him; Starr’s friend DeVante, shook up by the shooting and wanting to walk away from a lifestyle that seems destined to end in violence; and the activists who want to use Khalil’s death to force change.

All told, it’s a maelstrom of a book. I cried again and again and again. It’s also incredibly funny. Starr’s observations are so spot on that I found myself chuckling in bed late at night, trying not to wake my husband.

By the time I finished this book, I was sad to leave it behind. I miss Starr and her family. I’m so grateful to Angie Thomas for writing this book.

If you haven’t read it, don’t wait. When it becomes a movie, everyone will be talking about it!

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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.