Monthly Archives: April 2016

‘Those Girls’ by Chevy Stevens

Those GirlsstarstarThis intense thriller was a big disappointment to me, even though I did finish it. I had heard about it on CBC radio’s The Next Chapter feature entitled “If you liked that, then you’ll love this.” A guest on the show is invited to suggest a Canadian equivalent to a well known bestseller. In this case it was comedian Candy Palmater recommending Those Girls as just as good if not better than Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl.

In Those Girls, three sisters are born into a terrible situation. They manage to extricate themselves from their horrible home and abusive father, but find themselves on the run. From here things go from bad to worse. Their adventures take a brutal turn and then suddenly the book jumps ahead 18 years. Now an 18 year old daughter of one of the sisters is narrating, and the story becomes brutal once again. The scenes are not graphic, but they are awful. The characters are annoyingly stereotypical and flat: the men are almost all violent abusers and the women almost always make stupid decisions.

The only thing the novel had, was plenty of suspense, but it was not the ‘twist and turn’ type of suspense that I enjoy which was the hallmark of Gone Girl. It was the ‘who is going to win in this violent scene’ type of suspense. I noticed that reviews of this author in general are quite mixed–either really good or really bad. The ones who love her books say “best thriller ever” and the rest say things like “hollow characters who behave in ways that make no freaking sense, plot development that is not even remotely believable, and disastrously bad writing.” I must admit I am in the latter camp. What thrillers have you enjoyed?

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Talestarstarstar“It has been banned in schools, made into a film and an opera, and the title has become a shorthand for repressive regimes against women,” (the Guardian).

Since I’m Canadian, I sometimes feel like I should be a big fan of this iconic Canadian author. Alas, I am not, but this was a book club assignment so I got an opportunity to read the one Atwood I have always wanted to read at some point.

Despite its undeniable success and impact, I found it interesting, but not particularly brilliant. Perhaps I am not literary enough or it’s because I’m not really a fan of futuristic dystopian novels, although I loved Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Sometimes when I read books like this, a nagging feeling that I’m missing something persists. I did consult wikipedia to get a handle on the various themes. Apparently the audio book is narrated by Claire Danes who does drama really well, so maybe I should have listened to it!

The Handmaid’s Tale has been called the feminist 1984. It is set after a totalitarian Christian theocracy has overthrown the United States government. A terrorist attack is staged (blamed on Islamic extremists) and a new state called Gilead is set up under the pretext of restoring order. Because Gilead struggles with infertility issues, handmaids are kept as slaves for breeding purposes only. They have no rights or freedoms and are forbidden to read. Even their own names are banished and they are given slave names denoting who they belong to: Offred (Of Fred), Ofglen, Ofwarren, etc.

The novel though, is just simply the handmaid Offred telling her story. It’s very easy to read and the backstory comes through small reveals in the narrative.  What I did enjoy was Offred’s will to survive and her ability to cope and find ways to nourish her spirit. There are some beautiful sentences that did give me pause. “We were a society dying of too much choice,” and “In the days of anarchy it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.” Since this book was written in 1985, the speculated year for the novel was 2005! That must have sounded very distant then but is already ages ago now! The novel is still used today in many educational settings as a springboard from which to discuss things like political, religious, and academic freedoms and many aspects of the social sciences.

Atwood prefers to call this “speculative fiction” even though most have classified it as “science fiction.” I like her distinction. Speculative fiction is any narrative fiction that includes elements, settings, and characters whose features are created out of imagination rather than based on attested reality and everyday life. She says this book is a “no Martian type” and is about things that could really happen. In my opinion, that makes it much more frightening!

‘Oi Frog’ by Kes Gray and Jim Field

Oi Frog!starstarstarstarWho doesn’t love a charmingly silly story with inventive illustrations!?! This children’s picture book has it all…humour, rhyming, creativity, and all together it’s just plain fun. It might even lead to a game to play on your next road trip!

Cats sit on mats, hares sit on chairs, mules sit on stools, gophers sit on…well, you get the idea! But that frog, oi that frog, is being a pain because he just will not agree that he must sit on a log!

While researching this book, I came across this delightful poem review on Goodreads by Leila Skelton which recommends the book way better than anything I can say about it:

This book is like a rhyming treat
Accomplishing that special feat
Of mixing up who wrote, who drew,
Producing something fresh and new
That overall is very funny
(And very worthy of your money).

A frog would like a comfy spot
But is that easy? No, it’s not!
For every creature that we meet
Has got a special rhyming seat
And finding where we sit each one
Is really only half the fun!

My nieces love this. (knew they would)
IT REALLY IS SO VERY GOOD!
All bedtime faves have been forgotten
In favour of a froggie’s bottom!

I hope you take this tip from me:
BEST OF THE YEAR!
(So far, bought 3…)

‘Whispers Through a Megaphone’ by Rachel Elliott

Whispers Through a Megaphonestarstarstarstar“When someone speaks loudly, it doesn’t mean they have found their own voice.”

This beautiful fresh novel won my heart and I was so hoping it would make it from the Bailey’s long-list to the short-list–alas, it did not. It is a quirky, simple story with lots of amusing twists and turns, about some rather normal, slightly damaged people. But Elliott made me really care about them. Elliott’s writing style is clever and thought provoking but also funny and life affirming. She doesn’t write the story, she shapes and sculpts it, giving it rich texture and multiple angles, despite the light-hearted feel. There are whole parts of dialogue delivered in Twitter and text messages which was fun…I don’t think I’ve ever seen that done in a novel before.

“Miriam hasn’t left her house in three years, and cannot raise her voice above a whisper. But today she has had enough, and is finally ready to rejoin the outside world. Meanwhile, Ralph has made the mistake of opening a closet door, only to discover with a shock that his wife Sadie doesn’t love him, and never has. And so he decides to run away. Miriam and Ralph’s chance meeting in a wood during stormy weather marks the beginning of an amusing, restorative friendship, while Sadie takes a break from Twitter to embark on an intriguing adventure of her own. As their collective story unfolds, each of them seeks to better understand the objects of their affection, and their own hearts, timidly refusing to stand still and accept the chaos life throws at them.”

This is an amazing voyage into the question of what makes us who we are and what determines what we do? When we are puzzled by people’s behaviour are we quick to judge or do we take the time to understand why? It reminds me of Amanda Marshall’s song “Everybody’s got a story that could break your heart.”

‘The Green Road’ by Anne Enright

The Green RoadstarstarstarstarAnne Enright is an accomplished Irish author, winner of the Man Booker Prize for The Gathering. The Green Road was long-listed this year for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and was this week chosen to be on the short-list! Of all the book prizes, the Baileys is the one I keep a serious eye on because the titles are usually readable, beautifully written, and compelling. For a great overview of the long-list, click here.

Rosaleen is a very complex and formidable mother. Her children have scattered literally around the world, but the novel opens when they are all still at home. In this way Enright sets the scene and we immediately get a sense of what kind of home this is and wonder what kind of woman would get upset enough to take to her bed (“the horizontal solution”) because her son says he is going into the priesthood. Their ‘Mammy’ is given many interesting descriptions in the book but my favourite is “a woman who looked like she had a lot to say and wasn’t saying any of it.”

Over the course of the next years the family disperses and Enright gives Dan, Constance, Emmet, and Hanna their own chapters. They lead varied lives and are as different from each other as siblings can be. When they all converge years later for Christmas, carrying their own ‘baggage’ and by that I don’t mean suitcases, they are shocked by their mother’s announcement that she wants to sell the family home. They experience that disturbing feeling that their childhoods will be erased, bought and sold with the house.

“The house held memory and meaning that his heart could not. The house was full of detail, interest, love. It was a question of texture, Dan thought, a whiff of your former self in a twist of fabric, a loose board. It was the reassuring madness of patterned wallpaper under the daily shift of light. The sun rose at the front and set at the back of Ardeevin, wherever he was in the world, and when he came back, the house made sense in a way that nothing else did.”

Enright is very frank and doesn’t shy away from honest images. Her writing is so beautifully descriptive and evocative, even of simple things such as getting a mammogram or finding items in a dusty drawer: “Old cheque-books, one end thick with accusing stubs, the rest slapping empty.” In the chapter about Dan, who was in New York in the gay community  during that terrible time when HIV AIDS first came on the scene, she talks about the poignancy of an address book full of white out. In the chapter about Emmet, a relief worker in Mali, she talks about losing her son to the hunger of others. Constance’s chapter is all about her relationship to her own children and husband, complicated by fear that she has cancer. Hanna’s chapter about early motherhood is heartbreaking and the opening scene is one that will stay with me for a very long time.

Despite the Irish intimate gossipy tone of this novel, and the sharply observed descriptions (sentences that took my breath away), we don’t learn everything about everyone. There are still secrets and we can only guess as to some of the reasons for some things. The ending trails away, things are not tied up neatly in a bow. But I see that as respect for the reader; we can handle coming to some of our own conclusions! This is a brilliant exploration of how family changes (or doesn’t change) when the children grow into adulthood, and offers pain, humour, and hope in equal measures.

‘Learning to Walk in the Dark’ by Barbara Brown Taylor

Learning to Walk in the Darkstarstarstarstar“I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.”

This is the latest book by Barbara Brown Taylor, Episcopal priest and author of An Altar in the World, her best book by far and not one to miss. Click on the title to see my post on it.

This is such a good one too. It is a study of darkness, both the physical kind (with all the lights out) and the psychological and spiritual kind (living with loss and losing hope). This is not a how-to book, but if it was it would simply advise us to do what the author did–be curious about the dark and our own experience of it–have the courage to explore something that we have resisted and avoided for most of our lives because of a fear built up by our culture. We think faith is all about walking in the light, but there can be plenty of blessings that come when we, in our broken world, inevitably find ourselves stumbling in the dark. Darkness is actually something essential to our health because we need sleep. It is a natural part of our circadian rhythm–walking in the light and resting in the dark. How have we come to fear it so?

In this book the author looks to the phases of the moon to understand our relationship with God, which also naturally waxes and wanes. “…sometimes bright, sometimes faint, sometimes full on, and sometimes just a mere sliver peaking from behind a cloud…” With the darkness when there is no moon, it is important to realize that the light is coming. And when it is bright, enjoy it…because the darkness will return. Embrace these rhythms and learn from them. The invention of the light bulb has given us the false security that we can always be in the light, always in control, never having doubts or fears or times when we do not know the way.

Barbara Brown Taylor is honest and wise. Her writing is marked by humble elegant insights into life, love, and faith which are rooted and earthy but also divine. For her it is more about asking the right questions than having all of the answers. Her books are full of small personal moments that speak volumes.

‘The Hero’s Walk’ by Anita Rau Badami

The Hero's WalkstarstarstarstarWhen it’s March and CBC’s battle of the books Canada Reads takes place, I am SO proud to be Canadian. Five celebrities champion five books that they think all of Canada should read. This year the theme for the books was “starting over.”All five celebrities do read all five of the books by Canadian authors and engage in a lively and passionate debate on air. Each day one of the books is eliminated, so it is a nail biter with a final winner chosen after only 4 days. This year’s winner was The Illegal by Lawrence Hill, a compelling page turner about a marathon runner refugee. The IllegalSince I read this book last year, find a full review here. It was a close race (pardon the pun) with The Hero’s Walk in the finale. Podcasts of Canada Reads are still available on CBC.ca if you want to listen to the debate. It was a really articulate panel this year. In my opinion, both books are deserving of the Canada Reads 2016 title.

The Hero’s Walk is wonderfully readable and engaging–I loved it! The main characters are so lifelike and leap off the page. Badami’s beautiful writing style captures India and Indian culture so perfectly, you can feel the heat and smell the streets and hear the neighbourhood. The novel takes place mostly in India, but there is a Canadian connection in the form of a little girl called Nandana.

Sripathi Rao is proud of his daughter Maya, but cuts all ties with her when she breaks off her arranged marriage in India and leaves to marry a Canadian in Vancouver. When Maya and her husband are tragically killed in a car accident, their daughter Nandana must travel to India to live with grandparents she has never met. Talk about starting over! When Nandana comes to stay, Sripathi begins a journey of his own: one of transformation, forgiveness, and second chances. A beautiful book about painful endings and new beginnings, and the hard but sweet work of being family.