Tag Archives: fiction

Finished this book (a while ago): Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

Cover of the book Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

Cover of the book Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

 

I’ve been falling behind on posting book reviews lately, but the books themselves are all stacked up waiting for me to blog about them. Problem is, the more I read, the less I remember about each individual book I read last year to be able to review it… But here I go anyway!

My mom gave me Atwood’s book Hag-Seed a year or so ago, and although I was very much looking forward to reading it, it took me a while to get around to it. Around the time I had finally picked it off the shelf and placed it by my bed to read, I started seeing posts on Facebook about how Atwood was defending someone who’d been accused of sexual assault, and rules-lawyering about reasonable doubt and giving men a chance. I was so irritated and disappointed, as it seemed at that time that every time I turned around, another woman whom I had previously thought reasonable was siding against victims and with predators. So I ignored the book for a few more weeks, and once I did start to read it, I was in a frame of mind to be extra critical of it.

And I did indeed find much to criticise. Or at least much to be disappointed in. The only three female characters were 1) a figment of the protagonist’s imagination, 2) a trying-too-hard femme d’un certain âge scorned by the protagonist, and 3) the out-of-work actress he originally wanted as his Miranda twelve years earlier who is willing, available, flexible, and eager to rush in to fill the role. The protagonist himself, Felix, is a narcissistic, vengeful man who feels that his artistic brilliance justified anything he chooses to do. The prison, prison guards, and inmates are portrayed so unrealistically that I have to assume that even people who have never been to or worked in a jail must be unconvinced.

Now maybe, I thought while reading the book, perhaps this was all a brilliant work of irony or satire or theatrics. Maybe the theatrical nature of this—a book which creates a play within a play based on a play outside the book—is actually a fourth play—the book itself—with liberties taken for the sake of the staging and the plot.

But I found the protagonist tiresome and whiny, the two live female characters superficial and unrealistic, and the portrayal of jail guards and inmates condescending.

What I did enjoy was the dive into The Tempest itself, and the different interpretations of the play and its various parts. It’s not a play I’ve ever read or seen; having only picked up some of its pieces bit by bit through references elsewhere, it was interesting and intriguing to have this be my first real introduction to it, and I wonder how much more I might have appreciated this book if I had been familiar with The Tempest beforehand.

And the other thing, a little thing but something that gave me great pleasure, was that when Felix had the inmates working on the play, all regular curse words were forbidden. Instead, they could only use the curse words from the play itself. This playfulness and the way it is taken to heart by the inmate-actors was quite lovely.

After reading this book, I discovered that it is part of the Hogarth Project, which has contemporary authors re-imagine Shakespeare’s plays. That did put the book in a new light for me, seeing that Atwood was writing within certain constraints. It makes me more appreciate that Felix/Prospero is the protagonist not because Atwood decided to write about a self-involved man with little regard for others, but because he is, simply, the obvious protagonist. It also put the inmates in a different position: Atwood is not forcing them awkwardly into the various roles, but showing how the play’s characters are relevant to and reflected in people in all times. So I felt a bit more generous toward both the author and the book after discovering this context.

That said, I am sorely disappointed in the lack of feminism, woman-centredness, or politics beyond the petty (etc.) in this book. My expectations of Atwood were formed by Surfacing and The Edible Woman back when I just hitting puberty. Hag-Seed just doesn’t come close to that style, subtlety, or layering.

I have no interest in re-reading this book, and it will go into my giveaway pile.

Disclaimer: this review is thinner than it could have been, as I read the book quite a while ago…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finished this book: Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

tigana

There aren’t a lot of men on my list of favourite authors, but this guy is one of the exceptions. I’ve read most of his books many times. They are “comfort books” for me: lovely stories well-told. This is probably my tenth or twelfth re-read of Tigana, and I’m keeping it to read again.

Continue reading

Finished this book: Driving Lessons by Zoe Fishman

Cover of the book "Driving Lessons" by Zoe Fishman

Cover of the book “Driving Lessons” by Zoe Fishman

Every woman in this book wants babies. Even the woman who doesn’t think she wants babies suddenly wants them when she becomes pregnant. The woman who has to get a hysterectomy because she has frikkin CANCER doesn’t worry about metastasis or life expectancy but is only sad because no babies. The woman who already has babies is half-crazy from lack of sleep and how her selfhood is subsumed into motherhood, but she is constantly insisting that it is all worth it because she loves her babies so much. The protagonist is initially scared to become a mother but all it takes is some well-placed words from her husband and her friend with cancer and her nursing sister-in-law to make her see that actually she wants very much to have babies,

There’s nothing wrong with wanting or having babies. I mean, it’s not an urge I have ever understood, personally. But I do understand that it’s a big deal for a lot of people.

However, for there to be not one woman in this book to decide that in the end she is really happier without babies, or for there not to be any woman who says actually having babies is a mixed bag (without immediately blissing out about how it’s always worth it all the damn time because they love their baby so much) just requires too much suspension of my disbelief. I’ve hated my PUPPIES in the middle of the night when they wouldn’t let me sleep, never mind a kid!

The men in this book are basically all generic good-guy husbands / boyfriends. They seemed pretty much interchangeable to me.

This book is solidly embedded in a white, privileged, able-bodied, heteronormative, ciscentric, classist, and patriarchal worldview, right down to the entitlement and condescension of some of the men, and the utter lack of awareness thereof on the part of the women involved with them. The supporting characters were mostly stereotypes (the Beautiful Blonde, the Drawling Southerner, and so forth).

The dialogue was awkward in that it was too “therapy-esque” all the time, with the characters examining their motivations and drives and articulating them in a way that almost seems like they’re all in a joint therapy or mediation session. The dialogue “tells” too much instead of letting the story show the character development.

There was also a weird theme about ladybugs…? It never really developed into anything and it seemed out of place.

The only thing I really appreciated about this book was its insistence that women’s friendships are important, valuable, and sustaining. The existing and developing connections between the female characters was lovely, and this theme is (for me) the redeeming quality of this book.

Also, the theme / metaphor of the driving lessons was effective. And the way in which the driving lessons ended up helping the protagonist find a new career path was underplayed but very nicely done. It is portrayed as work she’ll probably love, so it’s too bad its value was framed more as being work she could do even when she becomes a mother.

If you aren’t bothered by lack of diversity and you’ve got a few hours at the beach to kill, this is an easy read with some nice friendships between women. Don’t expect any drama, depth, or character / plot development, though; this book, like its protagonist, is shallow, simple, and bland.

 

 

 

 

 

Finished this book: The Seventh Mother by Sherri Wood Emmons

Cover of the book The Seventh Mother by Sherri Wood Emmons

Cover of the book The Seventh Mother by Sherri Wood Emmons

 

This story is told in alternating chapters from the perspectives of Jenny, an eleven-year-old girl, and Emma, her seventh mother. Jenny and her dad live a nomadic kind of life as her dad takes seasonal work around the USA. Along with the seasonal work, Jenny’s dad picks up seasonal girlfriends, and although Jenny had grown attached to most of them, she also knows that none of them will stay for long. But Emma, Jenny hopes, is different.

All three of these characters are white, and the treatment of race in this book is handled in a way that is weirdly gentle and unflinching at the same time. This didn’t take up much space in the book but was probably my favourite thread.

Jenny’s dad, Brannon, is a loving and devoted father but he has an angry streak that he shows to others. Emma falls for him and excuses his angry moments (initially they are only moments, of course), forgiving him and explaining it away as proof of his love. Classic red flag stuff and the kind of thing that would have me running for the hills.

As the story progresses, Jenny wants to settle down and go to school, to have a “normal” life with her dad and Emma. Emma wants a “normal” life as well, a husband and children and a house. But Brannon isn’t a Happy Family kind of guy, as Jenny finds out when she stumbles across the real reason why the past mothers / girlfriends who were in her and Brannon’s life are now gone.

Books about dysfunctional families fascinate me, and yet I approach them with trepidation. With this one, I got nervous as soon as I saw Brannon’s temper, and I put the book down for a while because I wasn’t sure I could read about domestic violence. But one thing I really loved about the book was that Jenny’s perceptions and feelings were almost always validated by the people around her. Her dad loved and protected her, her “mothers” were nice to her, Emma loved her, and the parents of her best friend also listened to her and believed her. That part seems to be a bit fairy-tale-ish to me, since it’s not the way I think most young girls are treated in the world, but I did enjoy the fantasy.

Later in the book, there was a bit too much god-talk for me. Like, I get in when characters in a book go to church regularly the same way I understand it if they diet regularly: it’s not part of my life, I don’t understand it viscerally, but I “get” that it’s part of that character’s backstory and lived experience and will influence how they see the world and blah blah blah. But when the plot starts hinging on faith or calorie-counting in a way that assumes I, the reader, will agree that’s a legit basis for life decisions, I start losing interest. Sure, I know that these are very important things to a lot of people, I really do, but for me they are actual disincentives to stay engaged with the book. (And also with real live people who can’t stop talking about their religion or their weight loss regimes.)

Overall, it would have been a fast read if I hadn’t put it down twice for days, once when Brannon started getting mean, and once when people started ascribing events to a god. Jenny is a very sympathetic character, and Emma would be if she wasn’t so naive about Brannon. No, that’s not exactly it: I liked the character of Emma but I felt the path her life was taking was just too predictable from the reader’s perspective.

It makes me kind of sad when a book full of characters doesn’t have GLBTQ* people, or people with disabilities (in this case, one person used a cane, but that was obviously because of her age, which we know because of references to “the old lady”), or characters with some awareness of their class position, and so forth. I guess it’s always a bit disappointing when the characters in a story all seem to strive for a “normal” life, which to them and to the author means the status quo. There are ways to write characters like that while the book itself interrupts that idea of normality, but this book isn’t one of them.

It was a decent book that will now go into my giveaway pile.

 

 

Finished this book: If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous

Cover of "If You Follow Me" by Malena Watrous

Cover of “If You Follow Me” by Malena Watrous

 

Here’s a book I read with enjoyment and very little criticism. It follows a young American couple (Marina and Carolyn) as they move in together for the first time when they move to Japan to teach English. The culture shock and new pressures and expectations are beautifully integrated into the story.

The book incorporates many of the themes I like to see included: race, sexuality, culture, personal growth, relationship challenges, LGBTTQ*, mental illness, weird families, friendship, suicide, and so on—without making a big deal about any of them. Continue reading

Finished this book ages ago: House Broken by Sonya Yourg 

Cover of the book "House Broken" by Sonya Yoerg

Cover of the book “House Broken” by Sonya Yoerg

 

This book had a dog on the cover, alluded to dogs in the title, and has a main character who is a vet. I was sold! Also, the blurb mentioned the vet’s mother’s alcoholism, which was another draw for me. I like stories about dysfunctional families; reading them helps me make sense of my own childhood.

Before I get any further, I should mention that I read this book early last summer ( or late last spring?) and just haven’t gotten around to reviewing it yet. So this will be short and vague.

It was disappointing that there wasn’t more dog- and vet-related stuff in the book, and what there was, was not always particularly convincing. I’m thinking specifically of the minor plot line involving an aggressive dog, which was not very credible. It almost felt like the dog and vet stuff was thrown in there to get the punny title.

The writing, as far as I remember, was good and smooth. But I wasn’t entirely convinced by the actions and words of the characters. Your mileage may vary, of course; what you find realistic in a character might differ from what I would believe.

The plot held my attention and I did enjoy the dysfunctional family stuff. Well, “enjoy,” right? But it’s always interesting to me to read someone else’s take on it.

This book is going into the giveaway pile. It was an okay read, but not a fave.

House Broken by Sonya Yoerg. ISBN 978-0-451-47213-7

Finished this book: The Sky Beneath My Feet by Lisa Samson

Cover of "The Sky Beneath My Feet" by Lisa Samson

Cover of “The Sky Beneath My Feet” by Lisa Samson

Spoilers near the end, but there’ll be another warning first.

Only a short way into this book, I realised it was full of religion. There was a moment where I considered putting it aside and starting something else, but I was already nestled into bed with my PJs and my fuzzy socks and my fleece housecoat, with the cats and the Fluffy Dog in their usual positions, so I decided to read on a bit and give the book a chance. Also, the way the writer introduced the faith aspect was kind of funny, and I wondered if it might turn out to be tongue-in-cheek (the protagonist, Beth, was on a riff about the Jesus Fish on her van). Continue reading

Finished this book: How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti

 

Cover of "How Should a Person Be?" by Sheila Heti

Cover of “How Should a Person Be?” by Sheila Heti

It’s hard for me to decide whether or not I liked this book. I think partly that’s because I don’t know exactly what it is. Is it autobiography or fiction or memoir or fantasy or love letter? I feel as if it is important to know if it is factual or invented, even though “factual” memoirs or autobiographies can easily contain lies or falsifications or dramatic enhancements. But for some reason, it really bothered me to not be able to tell where Heti was telling the true story, and where she made things up or altered them to be true to the story, if that makes sense.

This reads partly like the diary of a shallow young adult, and partly like a love letter from one friend to another Continue reading

Finished this book: Flashback by Dan Simmons

Cover of "Flashback" by Dan Simmons

Cover of “Flashback” by Dan Simmons

After a long reading hiatus (as in a hiatus from reading, not a hiatus in which to read), I was suddenly in the mood for a book again. Something easy, something fast, something maybe a bit on the sci-fi side. I’d picked up a pile of books from my uncle in Steinbach after the Pride Parade, and Flashback was the hardcover supporting the stack.

This book is set in a dystopian not-too-distant future in the United States of America in which that country and indeed much of the world has broken up into warring factions, and in which many people are addicted to a drug called Flashback which allows users to fully relive the memories of their choice. As I’ve mentioned before, I am a big fan of dystopian fiction (dystopian reality is a whole different thing!) so I flipped it open and gave it a go.

Was I ever disappointed. Continue reading

Finished this book (ages ago): The Writing Class by Jincy Willett

Cover of "The Writing Class" by Jincy Willett.

Cover of “The Writing Class” by Jincy Willett.

I have already forgotten a lot of this book since I finished it back around the May long weekend and just didn’t get around to writing about it. I did like the main character, Amy, a misanthropist introvert author who hasn’t published anything in ages and who teaches writing classes. Her thoughts and feelings about her students were entertaining, although I admit I do have a preference for this type of sarcastic protagonist. The premise of the book was that weird events and deaths were befalling the class, and Amy was going to try to figure out who the culprit was by analysing the writing of her students. As a premise, it was fascinating, but it’s not how the story actually worked out. (The plot was kind of vague that way.)

Some of the characters were quite interesting while others were flat. I felt the trope of mental illness as an explanation for violent or bizarre behaviour was overused (you don’t have to be crazy to be an asshole or a murderer, and not all crazy people are violent, so chill already with the casual slurs and assumptions). The plot was not particularly believable, There were lots of interesting bits and pieces (Carla’s amazing house, Amy’s hilarious blog, the writing samples), but not enough substance in the story to hold them together in a memorable form. Amy seemed like she’d be a good protagonist for a series, and in fact I think there was another book about her before this one.

I don’t actually feel like I wasted my time reading this book, but it didn’t particularly engage me, and it’s already in my giveaway pile.

The Writing Class by Jincy Willett. 2008.

 

 

Finished this book: The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic (by Emily Croy Barker)

Cover of The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic by Emily Croy Barker.

Cover of The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic by Emily Croy Barker.

This book had most of the right elements—the main character being transported from our world to another one, magic, a woman standing up for herself and trying to change her circumstances, the importance of literacy and education—but somehow it didn’t capture me as much as I thought it would.

One of my frequent complaints about books set in other worlds is that these other worlds replicate ours so faithfully in so many of the manifestations of power and oppression. Baker’s alternate world is no exception: in it, women are subordinate to men, the poor are hungry and overworked and ill, and the characters are all presumed white (as becomes obvious when much is made of a Black woman from a land far, far away). I guess I’m just tired and bored of finding myself in the same old feudal society, as if there is something romantic and adventurous about a world where there is so much misery and despair and fixed hierarchy. Continue reading

Finished this book: Babel-17 (by Samuel R. Delany)

Cover of Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delaney

Cover of Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delaney

Babel-17 is an oldie-but-goodie from my dad’s science fiction collection, which he passed on to me when I moved back to Canada ten years ago. I was allowed to dip into that sci-fi collection at a young age, and was reading Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, John Wyndham, Brian Aldiss, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Larry Niven, Frederick Pohl, and more starting from the age of ten. At twelve, I was sweating my way through Asimov’s essays about science and the universe, not understanding much, but feeling as if I was being opened up to an amazing awareness of atoms and galaxies. My dad also had some women writers in his collection, like Leigh Brackett, Zenna Henderson, and Andre Norton, but it was my mom who introduced me to Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Doris Lessing, and Anne McCaffrey (whom I met once, but that’s another story). Continue reading

Finished this book: The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden (by Jonas Jonasson)

Cover of The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson

Cover of The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson

This book was passed on to me by a friend who liked it when she first started reading it but was more ambivalent by the time she finished. I was curious and started it that same night. I read the first two-thirds of the book fairly quickly, but then put it down and wasn’t too motivated to go back to it. I wasn’t sure why, since I enjoyed the writing style (or, I should say, the translation), the plot was fast-paced, the bizarre twists were definitely bizarre but still had internal consistency, the politics involved were interesting, and the characters were entertaining. Continue reading

Finished this book: The Art of Racing in the Rain (by Garth Stein)

Cover of The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

Cover of The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

This is a lovely book, telling the story of Denny (a racecar driver), his partner, and their child over the span of a number of years. The story is told from the point of view of Denny’s dog, Enzo, is a canine philosopher who bases his musings about the world and the afterlife on television and racing. Enzo is convinced that in his next incarnation, he will be a human, and he works hard to practice human traits so he will be ready for his next life

The book avoids being cutesy in its use of a canine perspective, but instead manages to capture Enzo’s love for and admiration of Denny, as well as Enzo’s fervent (and sometimes conflicting) desires to both please and protect his master. The way Enzo relates his ponderings back to the words and actions of racecar drivers, whom he views as philosophers in their own right, is sometimes surprisingly moving.

This book is a quick read, and is one of the better “from-a-dog’s-perspective” books I’ve read. Very different from, but as well done as, one of the first books I reviewed on this blog: Dog On It by Spencer Quinn. I like a dog book that doesn’t rely on the stereotypes of canine simplicity, good cheer, and blind loyalty, but rather treats dogs respectfully as the complex and alien people they are. That actually goes for any animal-perspective book.

I’d highly recommend this book. Even though I have no interest whatsoever in race cars, racing, or even cars in general, Enzo’s commentary and insights on his own life and the lives of his humans used images and experiences in these areas to tell a great story. I will read this one again.

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein.

 

 

Finished this book: Playing with Boys by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez

Cover of Playing with Boys by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez

Cover of Playing with Boys by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez

I picked up this book rather hoping for something fluffy and light. It’s set in LA in the entertainment industry, and I expected it would be a long list of designer names, descriptions of people’s clothing, wheeling and dealing, parties, romantic drama, and a predictable ending where the love interests overcome misunderstandings and barriers to finally declare their undying devotion. Continue reading

Finished this book: The Deep End of the Ocean by Jacquelyn Mitchard

Cover of The Deep End of the Ocean by Jacquelyn Mitchard.

Cover of The Deep End of the Ocean by Jacquelyn Mitchard.

This book was wonderfully-written. It’s the story of a family whose youngest son (a three-year-old boy named Ben) disappears, and the effects of that disappearance. The book is told primarily from the perspective of Ben’s mom, Beth, and partly from the perspective of the oldest son, Vincent. Continue reading

Finished this book: Belong to Me by Marisa de los Santos

Cover of Belong to Me by Marisa de los Santos.

Cover of Belong to Me by Marisa de los Santos.

This book was so gentle it was bland. Like plain potatoes. Kind of a disappointing chew.

The story was told from the point of view of three characters, Piper, Cornelia, and Dev. Cornelia’s part is told from the first person perspective, and the others from the third person, which is actually a technique I tend to like. De los Santos even manages to write that first-person perspective in a distinctive voice, which is always fun.

But the characters are… well… they are mostly nice people (or turn out to be nice people in the end), but there’s very little portrayal of how their characters develop. Continue reading

Finished this book: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Cover of The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood.

Cover of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

Here’s another book I love, and one I’ve read many times. This month I started with some difficult books but finally remembered to reach for the tried-and-true, since February is hard enough without reading emotionally draining books.

I guess this one could be seen as a difficult book, given that it’s a dystopian story  about one woman’s experience in a repressive religious society in which women are severely oppressed based on their gender, while the country is at war on the outside, and controlled by a secret police on the inside.

But Atwood’s writing is so amazingly pure and clear. It is uncluttered, and yet somehow attends meticulously to detail. The way her protagonists view and think about the world around them is so real and recognisable that it is sometimes startling.  There are very few of her books that I do not love (Alias Grace is one of those, though). Continue reading

Finished this book: A Song for Arbonne by Guy Gavriel Kay

Cover of A Song for Arbonne by Guy Gavriel Kay.

Cover of A Song for Arbonne by Guy Gavriel Kay.

This is maybe my sixth or eighth time re-reading this book. It’s one of my “feel-good books,” a go-to when I am feeling the need for both entertainment and the comfort of the familiar. Some people watch movies over and over to get this, but for me it’s books. Kay’s books tell stories I enjoy in a way that I like. The storylines linger on relationships between people and how influential those relationships are, but there are also politics and wars and romances and magic and intrigues. I always like Kay’s imaginary worlds; Arbonne and its neighbouring countries are no exception.

Sometimes I am a little frustrated that Kay relies so much on problematic gender stereotypes. While I do understand that the fantasy genre is fairly reliant on those stereotypes, Kay’s imagination and transformation of those tropes in so many other ways makes it all the more disappointing Continue reading

Finished this book: Lord of the Flies by William Golding

LordOfTheFliesBookCover

Cover of The Lord of the Flies by William Golding.

Some plot spoilers ahead.

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I had forgotten just how accurately this book portrays the desperation rage malice of bullying and insecurity and competitiveness. A group of British schoolboys is stranded on a tropical island after a plane crash. The boys have to figure out how to survive. There’s a lot of fresh fruit, and some potable water, so the basic needs are met. This story is about the boys’  attempts at social organisation (choosing a chief, creating working teams, keeping track of each other, etc.) and physical organisation (forming hunting groups, building shelter, maintaining a rescue fire as a beacon for help, etc.). But all of that is a backdrop to how quickly most of the boys lose their civilised veneer when there are no adults around to enforce the rules.

Two boys emerge as the main contenders to be chief, and the other boys fall in line behind one or the other, based at various times on popularity, possessions, skills, fear, whatever moves them at the time. Despite the vivid descriptions of the tropical island, the lack of girls, and the fact that some of the boys die, it seemed like a fairly accurate portrayal of of my experience of elementary and junior high school. The bullying, the violence and threats of violence, the weird fluidity of leaders and cliques, the arbitrary rules and conditions imposed on both insiders and outsides—in my opinion, Golding did a great job of showing one aspect of children and adolescents. Continue reading

Finished this book: 11/22/63 by Steven King

While I am always a fan of King’s writing style, I am not always a fan of his actual stories. This particular book was not one of my faves. I probably shouldn’t have read it in the first place, but I gave in to peer pressure: my uncle recommended it highly at a family dinner. He had lent it to my mom (who was partway through it at the time) and was wondering when our branch of the family would be finished with it because he wanted to pass it on to one of the other dinner guests when we were done. My mom was enthusiastic about it, and my brother wanted to get in on the action, so I invoked primogeniture and got myself on the list ahead of my little brother.

The subject didn’t particularly me. While there was time travel (yay!) and some sic fi (yay!) and a sprinkling of the  supernatural (mostly yay), I’m not a big fan of alternate history stories, and I have pretty much zero interest in American presidents. This book is about a time traveler attempting to prevent Kennedy’s assassination, so yeah, not really my thing.

On the other hand, I generally really enjoy King’s style. His deceptively simple sentences remind me of Lego. In lesser hands, Lego is a jumbled mess or an awkward construction, but in the hands of an expert, you get this. So based on family recommendations, and on some of my good experiences with King in the past (The Stand! Rage! The Long Walk! Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption!), I took my turn with the book. (My brother did get to it first, and kind of freaked me out by texting me and leaving notes to Beware the Jimla! “Thanks,” dude.)

Part of what I didn’t enjoy about this book was the subject matter (I mean, yawn, how much do I really care about every move Lee Harvey Oswald made, every place he lived, everyone he met, and all the conspiracy theories around Kennedy’s death?). Part of what I didn’t enjoy is how underdeveloped the supernatural plotline was: King introduces the word Jimla early on and brings it back a few times in a way that hints at something big, but it isn’t as fully developed as one would expect. And the third thing I didn’t enjoy is how the “explanations” and “making sense of things” all kind of bunched up at the end of the book. For my taste, there was too much mundane plodding in the middle, and too much explanatory wrap-up at the end.

To be fair, though, my brother loved the middle part and was quite surprised when I complained about it. To each their own. I wouldn’t read it again, and I probably would have abandoned it in the middle if I wasn’t the kind of person who hates leaving things unread… But if you are interested in this topic, you’ll probably really like it. I’m just sorry the explanatory part wasn’t woven into more of the story because it seemed like it would have been a fascinating thing to explore a bit more.

11/22/63 by Steven King. 2012. ISBN 978-14516-27299.

Finished this book: Sleep, Pale Sister by Joanne Harris (aka My Most Noncommittal and Inconclusive Book Review So Far)

I still can’t decide how much I like this book, although I finished it almost two weeks ago. It is written in an imitation of old-fashioned style, which I normally don’t like, but Harris makes it work really well. There’s a bunch of really stereotypical gender stuff in it, which normally irritates the crap out of me, but it’s not really presented as a war of the sexes; rather, pretty much nobody comes off looking particularly good. There are mystical aspects to the story, presented in a taken-for-granted fashion but still leaving room for doubt. I don’t know what I think of it. Basically, there are a bunch of elements here that would normally lead to a thumbs-down, but Harris manages to weave it all together beautifully.

The protagonist is an artist who marries one of his child models, expecting her to remain as compliant and biddable as she always was throughout her childhood. She grows up, he gets weirder, a ghost gets involved (or maybe not), and almost everyone seems addicted to laudanum or alcohol or chloral. There’s sex and adultery, murder and rape, magic and deception, paedophiles and prostitutes. The traumatic aspects of the story are not written in great detail but I still found some of them hard, so maybe a content warning for child abuse and sexual abuse, depending on what your threshold is. Mine’s pretty low.

I think I liked it, overall. But I didn’t like it enough to be sure that I like it. Weird?

Sleep, Pale Sister by Joanne Harris. 1994. ISBN 978-006-078711-0

Finished this book: Lottery by Patricia Wood

Cover of "Lottery" by Patricia Wood

Cover of “Lottery” by Patricia Wood

Perry L. Crandall is slow, but he’s not retarded. This is very important to him as he struggles against the teasing and impatience of the world around him. Patricia Wood does a fabulous job of telling this story from Perry’s perspective as he wins the lottery and has to navigate a family which is suddenly interested in him again after years of indifference, a world full of scammers and con artists, and his own circle of friends and work colleagues.

Perry was raised by his grandmother, and her wise advice is both touchstone and roadmap for him as he adjusts to life without her and to his new fortune. His best friend is Keith, a Vietnam vet suffering from PTSD and alcoholism. Perry’s voice is consistent and enjoyable. He is a very compassionate and careful person who thinks deeply—if concretely—about the important people and decisions in his life, like friendship, love, work, money management, family ties, and living with integrity. Continue reading

Finished this book: The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

Cover of The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood.

Cover of The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood.

I’m a big fan of dystopias and (post-)apocalyptic stories. And basically, when Margaret Atwood writes scifi, she is writing for me. I love her understated style, and the way she can write about the most horrible things in a matter-of-fact kind of way.

The Heart Goes Last is set in the USA after part of the country has experienced an utter economic collapse. The story follows a youngish heterosexual couple (Stan and Charmaine) as they make a lifetime commitment to an enclave that promises shelter, employment, and safety. Of course, once they sign up and are committed, they start to find out all kinds of things about the place (and their relationship), and Atwood does her usual morbidly thorough job at imagining the possibilities.

Charmaine is a fairly common type of female protagonist for Atwood. While they are all different, many of them share some basic elements of being concerned for social conventions, but also being almost ruthlessly  pragmatic and practical and sensible no matter what’s going on. There’s often a really delightful dissonance—and a simultaneous, almost inevitable consonance—between the character’s beliefs and actions. In this book, for example, Charmaine is very concerned with doing her job professionally, efficiently, and compassionately, and this leads her to (*major spoilers deleted*).

The last third of the book was… Oh, I hate to say this. It was not really up to Atwood’s usual work. it was as if she was trying to fit too much in, and so she couldn’t pay enough attention to each piece.

I found the ending a little too pat, but upon further reflection, it had something  to say about Charmaine’s ideas about relationships and her capacity for freedom. So while I had a bit of an eyeroll near the end, I have come to appreciate it more with some thought—although again, it was not as strong as I have come to expect of Atwood.

I devoured this book in a couple of days, fitting time for it around other stuff. It made me think of one of those massive holiday meals: so much preparation goes into it and then it gets eaten in no-time-flat. Fortunately, there are no dishes to do—but as with most of Atwood’s books, there’s always an aftermath for me as it takes me a while to get her books out of my head and move on to another.

 

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood. 2015.

 

Finished this book: If Morning Ever Comes by Anne Tyler

Cover if If Morning Ever Comes by Anne Tyler

Cover if If Morning Ever Comes by Anne Tyler. Usually I try to find the cover image from the actual copy of the book I read, but my copy is so old that I can’t even find the cover art online… So here’s a different version.

Ben Joe Hawkes is the only male in a family of many sisters. He worries about his sisters and mom a lot but they seem to be doing fine without him. This book opens with Ben Joe off at college and kind of depressed as well as anxious about changes in his family; he heads home and the story takes place over a short period of time while he’s staying back at home. We find out a lot about Ben Joe and his dad (who’s no longer around), but the women all stay rather mysterious. It’s a shame, because most of them seem quite intriguing.

This book was written over fifty years ago, and it does have a bit of an old-fashioned feel to it. It is gentle and easy, in a kind of odd way. Maybe because all of the tropes are so familiar, so there’s no challenge. Everyone is white and straight and believes roughly the same things about relationships and manners and how people should move through the world. The one exception ends up getting smoothed down (look: no real spoiler, though!).

I like Tyler’s writing style, especially her dialogue. This is a sad and yet pleasant book. I mean, maybe it’s just me who finds it kind of sad how people are so constrained by all the unspoken societal expectations and norms that pressure them into certain acts, but in this book they seem so inevitable that the sadness is there but in a kind of resigned way, if that makes sense.

I’m always curious as to why a woman writer would choose a male protagonist. But the more I think about this book, the more it feels like Ben Joe is totally steered by the choices the women around him are making. He’s not the kind of person who really puts his foot down much, while the women in the book seem to have more direction (even though that direction is pretty traditional).

If Morning Ever Comes by Anne Tyler. 1964. ISBN 0425098834.

Finished this book: How Stella Got Her Groove Back by Terry McMillan

Cover of How Stella Got Her Groove Back by Terry McMillan

Cover of How Stella Got Her Groove Back by Terry McMillan

Warning: Full of spoilers.

This is an entertaining “beach book”—a quick and undemanding read. It was a fun look at a boy-May / girl-December relationship, although it was somewhat marred for me by the countless times Stella let her defensiveness and insecurities run wild. “Oh god, he didn’t come to the phone right away, well to hell with him, I knew he wasn’t really interested. “Shit, I still don’t have a letter from him, well screw him, I knew this was just a fling for him.” “He’s a few minutes late for our date, well goddammit, I guess he found someone his own age, what would he want with an old lady like me anyway.” And so on and so forth ad nauseam.

On the other hand, it’s nice light reading, and it was a pleasure to read a book where none of the protagonists were white. I liked the pieces about Stella’s relationships with her sisters, and how she parents her son. Stories where the main character has no money worries are always kind of fascinating to me, in a “wow, I wonder if that’s what I would do if I wasn’t always so broke” kind of way. It was good to see how Stella eventually decided to return to making her art, although it would have been interesting to hear more about that and rather less about the detailed lists of items she bought on her shopping sprees.

A nice light book, although it is sad to me that Stella’s groove came back because of the man; I would have liked to see her art be the groove-maker. Although it is entirely possible that I am misunderstanding the concept of groove.

Apparently this book has been made into a movie and I am the last North American who hasn’t seen it yet.

How Stella Got Her Groove Back by Terry McMillan. 1996. ISBN 9780140259627.

 

Finished this book: Gardens in the Dunes (by Leslie Marmon Silko)

Cover of Gardens in the Dunes by Leslie Marmon Silko

Cover of Gardens in the Dunes by Leslie Marmon Silko

This is a lovely, layered, complex book weaving together the stories of many people connected to two sisters of the Sand Lizard tribe, Indigo and Sister Salt, back around the turn of the last century.

There were three themes I really enjoyed. One is the ways in which difference and similarity are interwoven. For example, When Indigo sees some ancient pre-Christian European statues, she immediately recognises Bird Woman and Snake Woman from her own beliefs. These kinds of interconnections are made throughout the book and by multiple characters.

The second theme is that of personal agency. Although Indigo is still a child when her life starts taking unexpected turns, she is always thinking about how she can and should act to survive, to be reunited with her family, and to continue the important work of looking toward the future and the past. Continue reading

Finished this book: Irma Voth by Miriam Toews

Cover of Irma Voth by Miriam Toews.

Cover of Irma Voth by Miriam Toews.

Irma is a young Mennonite woman whose family has moved from Canada to Mexico to live in a repressive community. Her authoritarian father no longer interacts with her since she married a Mexican without his permission, but she still lives on her father’s land and works for him. This book is about what happens to Irma when her husband disappears and she starts spending time with some filmmakers who set up nearby.

Toews has a wonderfully understated writing style. This book flows along calmly, despite the big events and strong emotions it contains. Toews seems to care very much about all of her characters, and is generous even to the “bad” people.

I don’t want to spoil the plot for you by mentioning anything else, because this is definitely worth reading. The characters have a wonderful internal consistency even when the most unexpected things happen to them.

Irma Voth by Miriam Toews. 2011. ISBN 9780307400697.

Finished this book: Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver

Cover of Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver

Cover of Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver

I am a big fan of Barbara Kingsolver, and this is one of the books I have read multiple times. It continues the story of Taylor and Turtle from The Bean Trees, but they’re both standalone books and you won’t miss out on anything if you haven’t read the other book first.

This books gets into more detail about Turtle’s family of origin and her tribe. I like how carefully the characters walk the balance between the good of the individual and the good of the group. People really wrestle with their consciences and ethics to figure out the right course of action, but the way they do so is deftly embedded in the story. In clumsier hands, this would be moralising, but Kingsolver shows how people can struggle to do the right thing and come to understand that there is no one right way to act.

Kingsolver’s writing is so generous, so kind and gentle, and at the same time cuts straight to the heart of people’s interactions and retrospections. I enjoy the flow of her writing, and I relax into her books with the trust that she will not let me down with weak writing or implausible plot developments. It’s a rare and beautiful thing to trust a writer in that way.

Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver. 1993. ISBN 9780571171781.

Finished this book: Ark Baby by Liz Jensen

Cover of Ark Baby by Liz Jensen

Cover of Ark Baby by Liz Jensen

Dystopias and post-apocalyptic stories almost always fascinate me. Liz Jensen’s Ark Baby is set in a near-future (at the time of writing) Britain after the Fertility Crisis, in which no one is getting pregnant on that island anymore. That story is juxtaposed with another cast of characters in the nineteenth century whose lives have effects on the people in the modern-day story. One thing I love about this book is Continue reading

Finished this book: The World Unseen by Shamim Sarif

Cover of The World Unseen by Shamim Sarif

Cover of The World Unseen by Shamim Sarif

Another wonderful book! This is the story of two Indian women living in South Africa under apartheid who come to know each other despite their very different life circumstances. Amina is a not-really-out-but-everyone-knows-it lesbian who runs a cafe, while Miriam is living a more traditional life with an authoritarian husband and a few kids. Their story together, and their stories individually, are told with so much compassion and empathy for people whose lives are constricted by law and custom but who nevertheless strive toward wholeness and integrity.

Ever since I had the very good fortune and privilege to spend six weeks in Zimbabwe for school, I have been drawn to books and stories about Africa, preferably with protagonists who are rooted there (as opposed to stories in which Africa and Africans are merely superficial and exotic backdrops to the story of some white tourist, for example). I felt that what I saw and experienced in my short time there, and in only one country, was not even the tip of the iceberg, but just a glimpse of the iceberg in the distance. The more I read, the more I learn, and the more I enjoy it.

This beautiful book is filled not only with fascinating characters, but is firmly grounded in the land, the laws and customs of South Africa and of India, and the particular cruelties of apartheid. A good story, well-told, and definitely re-readable.

 

The World Unseen by Shamim Sarif. 2001. ISBN 978-0-9560316-0-0.

Winner of the Pendleton May First Novel Award and the Betty Trask Award.

Finished this book: Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O’Neill

Cover of Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O'Neill

Cover of Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O’Neill

This wonderful book is about an adolescent girl named Baby whose parents had her when they were fifteen. Her mom died and she is being (kind of ) raised by her dad, who has schizophrenia. So many sad and heartbreaking things happen in this book, but it is so gorgeously written, and Baby is such a convincing protagonist, that it is not as hard as you might expect. Continue reading

Saw this movie: Ex Machina (not recommended)

CAUTION: There are so many spoilers in here I can’t even. But don’t worry, it’s not worth watching anyway.

So not only have I not been sleeping well for weeks, I am now in Week Two of some hybrid flu / cold that started as fever and shakes and chills and has now evolved into a runny nose and phlegmy cough. I’ve barely walked the dogs for ages and they are getting tired of the confines of the back yard. My house is a mess and I am choosing to pretend this is because I am sick and tired (just work with me on this one). Mostly what I do in the evenings after a long day of functioning at work  is pop cold meds like candy and watch Netflix while wrapped in a quilt and pinned into place by various dogs and cats. Continue reading

Finished this book: The Dubious Hills (by Pamela Dean)

Cover of The Dubious Hills by Pamela Dean

Cover of The Dubious Hills by Pamela Dean

When you’ve read a gazillion books, it’s rare to be surprised. The pleasure in reading is found in how well the story is told, how believable the characters are, how the writer deals with their variations on the (generally familiar) plot. How’s the dialogue, how’s the worldbuilding, how are the relationships, how’s the show-don’t-tell?

Continue reading

Finished this book: The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

Cover of The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

Cover of The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver is one of my most favouritist bestest most fantabulous incrediblest writers ever. She would never, for example, write that sentence. Her writing is so understated and full of the sweet and the painful details of everyday life. Her characters are just so believable and layered; there are no unidimensional villains or angels here. Bad things sometimes happen to good people, and then those good people muddle through and do their best to be good animals (Kingsolver’s the one who inspired my tagline), and to make sense and meaning of the world around them.

Kingsolver’s touch feels so light but really it runs deep and, in my case at least, it is indelible. She treats all the isms with profound delicacy: race and gender and homophobia and disability and class and age and religion and mental illness are all in there, but difference is treated so matter-of-factly that it ceases to seem different and becomes simply the way life is.

I have read this book many times over the years. My ragged copy is over twenty years old. Kingsolver reminds me that even in the face of horrific things, we can be generous, we can be kind, and we can do better next time.

The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver. ISBN 0060915544.

Wait, there’s more! So I was looking for an image of the book to insert into this post and I saw that this book has been banned in some places for sexual scenes and vulgar language. Huh? I do believe I’ve seen far worse on Gilmore Girls. Seriously, I would let any kid read this book. And I recommend it to anyone. Highly. Unreservedly. Insistently!

Finished this book: Animal’s People (by Indra Sinha)

Cover of Animal's People by Indra Sinha

Cover of Animal’s People by Indra Sinha

This is the story of Animal (Jannvar), a young man who was born shortly before a chemical disaster in his city of Khaufpur. The chemical spill affects his body so that he has to walk on all fours, hence his name. The background plot of the chemical spill, how it affects the city and its people, and the collusion between the local government and the American company responsible for the disaster, are roughly based on the Bhopal disaster. Khaufpur is a fictional city, although it does have its own website.

I loved the characters in this book, Continue reading

Finished this book: Room (by Emma Donoghue)

Cover of "Room" by Emma Donoghue.

Cover of “Room” by Emma Donoghue.

This book is amazing and I highly recommend it. The story is told from the perspective of a child, Jack, whose fifth birthday opens the book. One thing I love about this book is that his mother loves him, protects him, and does her best by him. Her best is not always good enough, especially considering the fact that they have been held in captivity for years (since before Jack was born), but the will is there. Another thing I love about this book is that Jack is actually heard. Most of the people around him take him seriously, and he is an agent in his own life. Continue reading

Finished these books: Adrian Mole I & II (by Sue Townsend)

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole

TheGrowingPainsOfAdrianMole

The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last week I offered to lend the first two Adrian Mole books (The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 3/4 and The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole) to a friend’s kids. I dug them out of the pile of Books I’ve Read and Am Not Ready to Give Away (a bookshelf in my studio). But once I’d laid eyes on them, I just had to re-read them before lending them out.
Continue reading

Finished this book: The Lions of Al-Rassan (by Guy Gavriel Kay)

Cover of

Cover of “The Lions of Al-Rassan” by Guy Gavriel Kay.

This is one of those books I’ve read many times, along with some of Kay’s other books, and almost anything by Barbara Kingsolver (The Poisonwood Bible, High Tide in TusconPigs in Heaven, The Bean Trees) or Marge Piercy (especially Woman on the Edge of Time; He, She, and It; and the Eight Chambers of the Heart poetry collection) or bell hooks, Dionne Brand, and Adrienne Rich, a few Maeve Binchy books, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (among others), Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer, Arundhati Roy (The God of Small Things, of course, but also her political stuff), Steven King’s The Stand, Richard Wagamese’s Keeper’n Me, all of Audre Lorde’s poetry and essays, Edwidge Danticatt, Ursula K. Le Guin, Kader Abdolah’s Een tuin in de zee,  Toni Morrison, Thomas King, Marilyn Frye’s philosophy, and so many more books I’ve read over half a dozen times over the years and sometimes far more often. Some books tell a story so well (or tell such a good story, or both), or speak to me in some fundamental way about the world and how I live in it, that I go back again and again. (Also, I’m a real sucker for post-apocalyptic stuff, utopias and dystopias, that kind of thing.) Sometimes it’s a book that feels very deep and meaningful, and sometimes it’s just (!) a great story well-told (and some, like Kingsolver, manage to do those at the same time). Continue reading

Finished this book: Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination (by Helen Fielding)

Cover of the book

Cover of the book “Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination” by Helen Fielding.

Spoilers below, with another warning before you get there…

Helen Fielding gives good dialogue! And she has a knack for portraying the little things that make a character—well, perhaps not entirely believable and real, but very engaging and entertaining. I really enjoyed the first two Bridget Jones books despite the fact that Bridget’s massive insecurities and desperation to snag a man were irritatingly off-putting. I enjoyed Cause Celeb somewhat better although at this moment I can’t remember what it was about. Anyway, Olivia Joules is a great character and I liked her much more than I liked Bridget Jones. Joules is interesting, has some fun quirks, and handles her insecurities with more grace than Jones does. The story zips  along nicely, with the expected and the unexpected both given their place.

However. On the themes of gender and race relations (yes, I always think about this, along with class and homophobia and mental health stigma and ability and and and), I have some complaints that involve spoilers. So, on to the spoilers… Continue reading

Finished this book: A Son of the Circus (by John Irving)

One version of the cover art for A Son of the Circus by John Irving.

One version of the cover art for A Son of the Circus by John Irving.

After reading the prefatory Author’s Notes, I felt some trepidation about reading this book. Irving starts by saying the book isn’t about India; he says he doesn’t know India. And yet this is a book wholly set in India, and the protagonist, Farrokh, is Indian. Farrokh is, however, an Indian for whom India is foreign, much as Irving states he found India to be foreign: “obdurately” and “unyieldingly.”

While I am not familiar enough with the thinkings around voice and appropriation to be able to set out in footnoted detail why this feels weird to me, the fact is that is does feel weird. Continue reading

Finished this book: The Stormchasers (by Jenna Blum)

Cover of The Stormchasers by Jenna Blum.

Cover of The Stormchasers by Jenna Blum.

Spoilers below, but I’ll warn you again before I get there!

I like books about people with mental illness, whether they’re the protagonist or someone else important to the story. In this book, the third-person protagonist (Karena) is a journalist whose twin brother has bipolar affective disorder and who is also fascinated by storms. This story shows the love between the twins and how that love is tested and sometimes seems broken because of the disruption of Charles’s illness. The author manages to avoid a lot of the stereotypes and misconceptions about mental illness, managing to make Charles a fuller and more well-rounded character than you often get when the “Crazy Person” is only there as a plot device. Continue reading

Finished this book: Glass Voices (by Carol Bruneau)

Cover of the book Glass Voices by Carol Bruneau. I took the image from the author's website.

Cover of the book Glass Voices by Carol Bruneau. I took the image from the author’s website.

This is my first review in a while because I kind of got stuck. The book didn’t really grab me, but I usually feel obligated to finish a book once I’ve started it, unless it is so horribly sexist or racist or violent that I just can’t even.

In some ways, this was a lovely book. It was decently-written, the story was touching, and so forth. But Continue reading

Finished this book: The Secret History (by Donna Tartt)

 

The cover of The Secret History by Donna Tartt.

The cover of The Secret History by Donna Tartt.

 

The characters in this book are so fascinating to me. They often act in ways that surprise me, but once it happens, it feels like of course, it had to be that way. The main characters are (and remain) mysterious, even the protagonist, despite the story’s first-person narrative. Continue reading

Finished this book: Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler

Cover of the book Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler.

Cover of the book Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler.

J. had a pile of books to give away and I was the first one at her door, hoping to beat the rush so I wouldn’t have to actually elbow her nieces out of the way. It was great! I came away with about fifteen books and the first one I read was Octavia E. Butler’s Fledgling. I’ve read books by Butler before; the Xenogenesis trilogy pretty much blew my little mind, although I was less enthused about the Parable books. Fledgling, however, makes up for that. Continue reading