Review: Church of Marvels – Leslie Parry

2017:91
4 of 5 stars
Published 2015

At the turn of the 20th century in New York City, four people who live on the outer edges of society find their lives entangled. Sylvain spends his nights shoveling out outhouses and finds a newborn baby girl in one of them. He decides to keep the baby himself instead of taking her to an orphanage. Alphie finds herself committed to a women’s insane asylum, possibly by her vile mother-in-law. She meets a beautiful woman who does not speak but who has some extraordinary abilities and  may know how to get them out. Odile and her twin were raised in the environment of a stage show but their mother has died and her sister has disappeared.

The lives of these people will intertwine as Odile finds a vague clue to her sister’s whereabouts and heads to Manhattan to see if she can find her. The story jumps between the points of view of Sylvain, Odile and Alphie. It’s a pretty grim side of New York that we’re shown. Seedy side shows, illegal bare knuckle fights, horrendous insane asylums (you couldn’t call them anything like a “mental health facility”!), opium dens, liars, chancers, hustlers, poverty, addiction, prostitution. Yet there are glimmers of kindness and hope. Due to Odile’s hunt for her sister, Belle, all their lives will cross and converge and move forward into the future.

Really liked this book. The characters are all distinct and colourful and the descriptions of the underbelly of New York in that time period feel very real.

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Review: The Icarus Girl – Helen Oyeyemi

2017: 90
3 of 5 stars
Published in 2005

This is a debut novel written when the author was 19. I wasn’t sure quite what to make of it, though. It’s about an 8 year old girl, Jessamy, whose mother is Nigerian and whose father is English. She’s been brought up in England but doesn’t seem to have friends and doesn’t fit in. During a family visit to Nigeria, she meets a girl called TillyTilly, a girl that nobody else seems to see. A girl who, eventually, Jessamy realizes isn’t real. Yet she has a presence and isn’t always a benevolent one, either.

Sometimes, I thought Jess was dealing with multiple personality, or some other mental illness. Sometimes, I thought it was a spirit, a ghost and other times I wondered if Jess had a brain tumour. The thing is, it’s never that clear. Jess is afraid all the time, not just of TillyTilly but of most things. She has an overactive imagination that fuels the fire. Even when she knows Tilly isn’t real, she knows there’s *something*.

Definition of Icarus. :the son of Daedalus who, to escape imprisonment, flies by means of artificial wings but falls into the sea and drowns when the wax of his wings melts as he flies too near the sun. – Miriam Webster dictionary

I think the story is a bit uneven. If I’m supposed to be picking up clues and metaphors, it’s lost on me. I’m not very good at that kind of thing.  Regarding Tilly and other events in the book, I’d like to have some sort of definitive reveal and motivation or something close to it but I don’t think it really gives you that. The ending is a bit ambiguous, too. But going by the definition above, when applied to the plot and especially the ending, then I can understand what happens at the end. And yet, I found the book engaging and interesting if a little frustrating to read. It kept me guessing and wanting to know what happens next and when the truth will be revealed. I was let down on that last point. It’s quite a complex novel for someone’s debut, written by a teenager who knows the Nigerian folklore that apparently some of this is based on.

 

 

Review: Today I Learned It Was You – Edward Riche

2017:89
3 of 5 stars
Published in 2016

The city is St. John’s, Newfoundland. A retired actor turns to the security guard profession and on a nightly check in a local park, has a clash with some teens. The next time we hear anything about him, he is apparently living in the park and is transitioning to a deer. Or something like that. Yes, you, too, will shake your head in disbelief.

In the meantime, we’ve shifted views to the local municipal council and the mayor, Matt Olford, who is a local hero because he used to be in the NHL on a Stanley Cup winning team. His wife has found religion, he’s contemplating entering Federal politics, he’s got a crush on a lovely fellow councillor, an immigrant from Italy. There are two animal rights activists stirring things up and another councillor who has a very large, ugly chip on his shoulder.  Social media goes viral over the whole deer situation. Many aspects of the tale are told by a lot of different voices, most of whom really have nothing to contribute to the actual story and are never seen again. That leaves most of the other regulars less developed than they should be. Not all of the narratives really cross over or just a little. It’s a bit confusing at times. And yet, it’s also kind of fun and it was enjoyable and quick to read.

While reading the book, I could almost picture it as one of those goofy Canadian films with quirky characters and lots of local colour and colourful locals. You can never go wrong with local colour in St. John’s. There are loose ends untied which loses a star in the rating and another star for the somewhat disjointed feel of the overall story.

This book was on the long list for Canada Reads 2017 though I do have to say I don’t think it would ever be considered a book that would fit the theme of “the one book every Canadian should read”.

Review: I am a Truck – Michelle Winters

2017:88
3.5 of 5 stars
Published 2016

Agathe and Réjean have been married for 20 years and seem to have a good relationship. They are French and isolate themselves from the English community where they live. “Just you and me forever” sounds romantic but there’s always such a thing as too much togetherness.  Then Réjean‘s pickup truck, a Ford Silverado, is found abandoned by the side of the road and Réjean is missing. It seems he might have just walked away from his life and Agathe, left behind, has no idea why.

Agathe struggles to build a new life and pursue interests that she was unable to previously, such as a love of rock and roll. Meanwhile, Martin, a salesman at the local Chevy dealer who sold Réjean his yearly Silverado upgrade model, may be the one person that knows what happened to Réjean. A lonely man, he seemed to have developed a man-crush on Réjean and after Réjean disappeared, becomes obsessed with watching over Agathe.

The story is told in chapters alternating before and after Réjean‘s disappearance, so we can see how Martin’s dependence on Réjean‘s friendship grew and get a picture of the marriage and then how things proceed after his disappearance. The dialogue is sometimes French mixed with English but you can get the gist of it if you have no French at all. There are lots of references to rock songs of the era, late 70s going by the ones I recognized, and how they “speak” to Agathe.

It seems like this book is about identity, who you are individually, who you are in a relationship, and  who you want to be.  All three characters haven’t had a chance to grow as a person because of their isolation.  Both Agathe and Réjean are different apart than they were together. Réjean  seems to have become an anchor in Martin’s life and when that anchor is gone, Martin starts to sink. And yet, it’s a love story, and it’s quirky and unusual. A short and enjoyable read.

This novel is the author’s first and is on the shortlist for this year’s Giller prize. Quite an accomplishment!

It Does Not Compute


My mother arrived at our apartment yesterday and when she came in, she was looking a bit confused. She had just had a conversation wtih someone outside the building and she wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. When she explained, I understood.

There was a man standing there, one of the building’s tennants, out in the sunshine having a smoke. If he’s the person I think he is, he’s about her age or her generation anyway. He doesn’t smoke in his apartment. In the course of the short conversation, she suggested that it was a good day to settle down with a good book. He replied “I’m tired of reading” in a tone of voice that implied he didn’t read at all anymore, that he was fed up with the hobby. That’s how she took it, not that he had been reading for hours and needed a break. That’s what I might mean had I said it though I can’t imagine saying it. We both agreed, how can you tire of reading in that sense? My reaction reminds me of a “tag line” that one of the characters on the Canadian sitcom, Schitt’s Creek” would often say. He’d get a blank look on his face and utter “I don’t know what that means”.

It does not compute, Will Robinson.

All of my family are lifelong readers and we are unsettled if we don’t have a book to read. Magazines are ok, but not quite as satisfying. They’ll do in a desperate pinch but work much better as a “plug in”, an addition to the reading roster where books are the main event. I always have at least three books on the go at any given time, usually e-books with perhaps a physical book as well and almost always, I have an ebook loaded on my phone. I’ve got all the bases covered, I think. Sometimes I save the physical book for bedtime. The ereader is very convenient for bus commuting. My mom likes the ereader/tablet for reading in bed because it’s lighter than a book.

Tired of reading. That’s still bouncing off my brain. If I have been reading for hours, I might need a break, that’s true enough but if I’m tired of reading, I can also just switch to another book! Problem solved!

“I don’t have time to read.”

Another incomprehensible statement. I thank the reading gods and goddesses that my life is not so horrendously busy that I can’t take 20 or 30 minutes out to read. I read on my commute to and from work, about 20-30 minutes each way. I read at lunch, 40 minutes or so. I read in bed before I turn out the light, 60-90 minutes. Waiting in the doctor or dentist’s office? 10 – 60 minutes depending. (Yes, my doctor is always late!) Sometimes on weekend days or other days off, I might find a quiet hour or two in the middle of the day and read as well. 2.5 – 3 hours each weekday, 3 – 5 hours weekends. I can easily read 15 – 20 hours a week, give or take.

Reading takes me away to interesting places, with interesting people to meet. Some I like, some I don’t. Reading teaches me things, entertains me and relaxes me. If I ever say that I’m tired of reading, someone give me a good shake and sit me down with a book, ok?

Wherefore art thou, Lisbeth?

Review: The Girl Who Takes and Eye for an Eye – David Lagercrantz

2017:87
2 of 5 stars
Published 2017

This is the second in the new round of books about Swedish hacker Lisbeth Salander, originally written by Stieg Larsson and now by David Lagercrantz. The previous book, The Girl in the Spider’s Web, while not *quite* up to the heights of Larsson’s vision and interpretation, was pretty good. I was more disappointed in this one. Lagercrantz is a talented writer in his own right and the in some ways I think he has captured the original spirit of the book and characters well enough but the book lacks the intensity of the Stieg Larsson trilogy.

We start with Lisbeth in prison for taking extreme measures to save a boy’s life. It’s not specified, but I think that was the result of the ending of the previous novel, The Girl in the Spider’s Web. Mikael Blomkvist visits regularly and then begins an investigation for Millenium magazine that has a connection to Lisbeth’s childhood. It’s going to tie together the young Muslim woman in prison that Lisbeth is trying to protect. And then there are identical twins, ties to a science/social experiment, and a lot of time is spent on this. In fact, there’s too much time spent on all the background and investigation and not enough time on Lisbeth which is mainly why I grew to love the original trilogy. In this book, she’s a shadow of her former self.

I find she doesn’t seem to be as engaged in the overall story, she’s almost an afterthought with most of her appearances in the shadows and the bulk of her storyline coming in near the end of this book rather than being an integral part of the whole thing. I like Blomkvist but I liked the chemistry between the pair of them and that’s lacking for the most part. In the tradition of the original concept, he shouldn’t be the star, he should be an equal protagonist or nearly so. Lisbeth Salander is the character that really made the books so successful, the underdog against all odds, used and abused and back for revenge. Her revenge doesn’t feel as satisfying this time.

In the first Lagercrantz book, The Girl in the Spider’s Web, Lisbeth was written quite well and the book was a fairly satisfying sequel to the series. There was a new aspect to her past and family that was revealed but I don’t want to spoil it though if you’ve read this book, you’ve probably read the previous four.

This time, he builds on that fact and adds more to Lisbeth’s childhood woes surrounding it. None of the Lagercrantz reveals were hinted at in the Larsson trilogy that I recall. It makes me wonder how much more will be retro-fitted into her back story in future books. For me, it starts to stretch credibility. Add to that, the relative lack of Lisbeth as the central figure in this book and interest starts to wane. If it wasn’t a Salander book with high expectations, though, I would have rated it higher. If you’re going to title a book “The Girl Who…” then it should be about The Girl.

Review: Poles Apart – Terry Fallis

2017:86
5 of 5 stars
Published in 2015

After the mind F#$* that was Bellevue Square and the frustration that was The Manticore and a dose of violence and investigative journalism that was The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye, I am ready for something light, fun and easy to read. What better than the humour of Terry Fallis?

Everette Kane, a freelance journalist in his 30s and avid feminist has to be the dutiful son and assist his father who is recovering from a stroke in Florida. He finds a small apartment and flies from Toronto to Orlando for the duration but finds he has a lot of time on his hands so he starts a blog. A feminist blog called Eve of Equality. When Ev takes on the owner of a chain of strip clubs, one of which has newly opened in the building where his apartment is, word of mouth and the backing of a TV talk show host send its popularity into the stratosphere and suddenly his blog is the talk of the nation.  The thing is, nobody realizes the woman behind the blog is a man.

Everette spends part of his days with his misogynistic father and connecting with a feminist hero who is also a patient there and spends much of the rest of his time writing blog posts and wrangling with the comments and emails the blog produces. He gets to know several people connected with the XY club downstairs and becomes entangled in the web he’s created trying to keep his blog anonymous. There are successes and there are dangers. Everette learns a lot about himself and his family during these months and might just come out the other end unharmed. Or unhinged. It could go either way.

Loved the book. Fallis writes with such wit that you’re smiling through most of the pages at his turns of phrases, and lovely little moments. His characters feel very real and he mixes quite a diverse number of types together to interact with his earnest young Everette through the story. You always know you’re going to get an easy to read but highly enjoyable tale from Terry Fallis, a top Canadian writer if ever there was one. I can highly recommend his novels!