Review | The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, Rachel Joyce

20890479I fell in love with Harold Fry in Rachel Joyce’s novel about his Unlikely Pilgrimage. How could I not? Here was a quiet, non-adventurous man setting off to walk the length of England to see his old friend Queenie Hennessy before she dies. I can never forget that scene: Harold on the phone to the nurse at Queenie’s hospice, saying “As long as I walk, she must live. Please tell her this time I won’t let her down.”

And now we get to see him through Queenie’s eyes. In this companion novel, Joyce tells us Queenie’s story, partly how she waits for Harold to arrive, and also partly how she lived before the whole pilgrimage began. Love Song is a wonderful novel, one that may make you tear up, and one that will make you fall more in love with Harold and Queenie than ever before. I read it in a weekend and though I didn’t cry like I thought I would, I did enjoy returning to Harold and Queenie’s world. I didn’t like it as much as Unlikely Pilgrimage, and I think it’s because this was a dose of reality that, for me, took out some of the charm of the earlier book.

One of the things I loved about Unlikely Pilgrimage is how Joyce refrained from the typical love story and kept the relationship between Harold and Queenie purely platonic. I was fascinated by the stocky, plain featured woman who’d made such an impact on a man’s life without any romantic feelings involved. In this book, we find out that Queenie was in love with Harold since they first met. They still are friends, and being in love does not make Queenie any weaker as a character, but the story just felt more traditional, and that disappointed me. I also wish she’d somehow moved on beyond Harold, not necessarily falling in love with anyone else, and again, there’s nothing wrong with being in love with someone who doesn’t love you back, but it just made me feel sad.

Another thing that I was too caught up to think about while reading Unlikely Pilgrimage was how nonsensical Harold’s plan was. While walking with Harold, the idea of walking across England seemed romantic, a true giving of oneself. Now, with Love Song, reading as patient after patient dies while waiting alongside Queenie, I ended up asking myself multiple times why he didn’t just take a train. Harold’s pilgrimage inspires Queenie’s fellow patients, and several of them found waiting for him as a reason to go on living and celebrating. So it’s still a beautiful act. It’s just that, coupled with the harsh reality of people dying while they wait, the impracticalities of the plan kept coming into focus for me.

That being said, there are a lot of other things to love in this book. For example, we get to meet Harold and Maureen’s son. A focal point of tragedy in the first book, David becomes a more complex, well-rounded character in this one. There’s a lot going on with him that we never really get to fully explore, and a much richer, more complicated family life that we didn’t realize until now.

We also learn a bit more about Queenie’s life, and Joyce teases us with details of a complicated pre-Harold past. I wish I’d learned more about it — what kind of child was she, and who was this man who screwed up her life before she took the factory job and met Harold?

I also love the other patients in Queenie’s hospice. They are such a colourful cast of characters, and each death dims the story the slightest bit. I especially love the description of their drinks — nutrient-rich shakes that taste disgusting despite supposedly having flavours like vanilla and raspberry. I remember having to drink a concoction once for a medical procedure — it was supposed to taste like strawberry and it kinda did, but it was also like gulping down cement and was utterly disgusting overall. I’m sure their shakes were much more vile, but that concoction was what I was thinking of when I read about the patients raising their cups in a toast and celebrating Harold’s pilgrimage with a serving they deem extra delicious. Such scenes feel poignant, and just because of what I once had to drink, it was those party scenes that remain most memorable to me.

Queenie’s story is told through the conceit of a second, longer letter to Harold Fry, where she confesses everything — her feelings for him, her role in David’s life, the true story of how she and Harold first met, and so on. I have mixed feelings about the ending. On one hand, there was a twist that seemed unnecessary and confused me more than anything. What was the point of that? On the other hand, there’s an added touch of poignancy to that twist that I kinda really liked. So, quite fitting for a tale of such complex human emotions, I finished the book not knowing quite how I felt about it.

Overall though, I did enjoy the book. Joyce’s writing is as beautiful as ever, and her gift for making characters leap right off the page remains strong. If you love Harold Fry, do take a moment to see him through Queenie’s eyes.

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Thank you to Random House Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

Blog Tour | Review: Gottika, Helaine Becker

9781770863910Helaine Becker’s Gottika is a powerful retelling of an old Jewish legend about the golem, a magical humanoid being made from clay who is brought to life to protect Jewish towns from anti-semitic attacks. The world that Becker creates in Gottika bears many similarities to Panem and other contemporary YA dystopias, but the reference to Jewish legend turns the into an unsettling allegory for the horrors of the Holocaust.

Fifteen year old Dany is a Stoon, in Western Gottika where Stoons are treated as second class citizens and killed for no reason under the tyrannical rule of Count Pol. Unrest is brewing, and Dany’s father must decide if he must stop trying to keep a low profile and use the secret knowledge he possesses to bring clay to life and transform it into a weapon against Count Pol.

There’s a lot going on in Gottika, multiple plot threads that, though resolved, rarely ever take off. What’s the “staring sickness”, why do all the families in town only have one child each, why is Count Pol kidnapping teenage girls? The final question in particular does have a pretty big significance in the story, but the question feels so tangential, and buried beneath so many other plot points, throughout the story that the payoff feels disjointed.

More powerful are the encounters between Stoons and Count Pol’s soldiers. In one particularly memorable scene, Dany and his father are swimming when soldiers order them out of the water and castigate them for not wearing their hats. The casual injustice, coupled with Dany and his father’s powerlessness to resist, is difficult to read. In another scene, soldiers storm Dany’s house to confiscate his family’s books. The novel breaks from text narration then, switching over to graphics and demonstrating how some horrors are beyond just words.

While more of the main characters are male, I love that the female characters seem to have more complex motivations for their actions. While most teenage girls fear being kidnapped by Count Pol, Dany’s cousin Dalil welcomes it. She is attracted by Pol’s lifestyle, and manages to turn a blind eye to his faults. Later in the story, she is forced to face the truth of Pol’s tyranny, and becomes instrumental in the resistance against it. I love her character arc, how her desire for comfort initially outweighs her loyalty to her people, until she is forced to realize just how much she is condoning by her actions. Dany’s mother as well, quiet and unassuming at first, later reveals a dark secret she’s had to live with for many years. In contrast to Dany and his father’s more traditional heroic roles, I love the nuances and  questions raised by Dalil and Dany’s mother’s more problematic arcs.

The horrors of the Holocaust are difficult to discuss, particularly in fiction for children. Gottika isn’t exactly a simple allegory for that, but it does speak to the oppression experienced by certain groups of people. The story is futuristic, but the tone is that of a classic fairy tale. There’s a timelessness to Dany’s story, and despite the supernatural elements, the sense that there have been, and continue to be, far too many Count Pols throughout history.

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Thank you to Dancing Cat Books for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review, and for inviting me to take part in this blog tour.

Review | Hush Now, Don’t Explain, Dennis Must

21528969This must be my season for jazz novels. Almost immediately after reading 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas, I receive Dennis Must’s Hush Now, Don’t Explain for review. Unlike Cat’s Pajamas, Must’s novel takes a starkly realistic view of history — racism, sexism and class relations, all within the framework of jazz.

The story follows Honor, an orphan, at the end of Word War II, as she leaves her dead-end town of DeForest Junction on a quest to learn about her birth mother. With her is her friend Billy, a mixed-race boy looking for the man he believes is his birth father, and shanty store owner Augustus Willard.

There are some powerful moments in this book, such as when Billy gets attacked and branded on his chest for his skin colour and when one of the characters decides to turn back for love. I also like the cadence of Must’s writing, which draws the reader into how the characters speak.

Overall, however, there’s a lot going on in Hush Now and I don’t think it all necessarily came together. There’s a heavy-handedness to the story, a desire to explore so many different issues and make a strong statement about each one, that at times, it just felt crammed. At its heart are some very personal, individual conflicts — Honor and Billy’s search for their past, Augustus’ search for a certain kind of future — yet only Augustus’ story, and to a lesser extent Billy’s, has a satisfying payoff. Honor is the main character, but her story felt the least authentic. I like how she had to dress up as a man to stay safe, but given how easily some other characters saw through her facade, it seemed more a metaphorical gesture than anything else. Possibly because her story felt the most heavy handed, she never felt real, and when she experiences something horrific later on in the story, it lacked emotional impact.

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Thank you to Coffeetown Press for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas, Marie-Helene Bertino

18815488Madeline Atimari is a rebellious nine-year-old and aspiring jazz singer. The eve before Christmas Eve, she decides to track down Philadelphia’s legendary jazz club The Cat’s Pajamas, and make her onstage debut. On the same day, her fifth grade teacher Sarina Greene is preparing for a dinner party that will reunite her with a high school crush. And at the Cat’s Pajama’s, club owner Lorca needs to raise $30,000 to keep the club from closing. Marie-Helene Bertino’s 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas is an uplifting, feel-good story of these three lives as they intertwine.

The book reminds me so much of the movie Love Actually or any one of a dozen holiday movie specials that my initial reaction was surprised that its publication wasn’t timed for a holiday release. I don’t mean that as a slam — it’s a charming, sweet read (the ending was downright sugary), and if you allow it to draw you in, it will make you feel good by the end. The characters were a bit difficult to keep straight at first, and I loved the schoolteacher storyline so much I sometimes wanted to skip over the club owner scenes. Still, despite some pretty sobering shots of reality, there’s such a fairy tale feel about the whole story that we can pretty much see where it’s all going, and how all the characters’ stories will intertwine at the end anyway.

It’s not quite magical enough to make a lasting impact on me, but it is a lovely tale that can sweep you away if you let it. In my opinion, it’s best read with a cup of hot cocoa with marshmallows.

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Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell

20819685How can I even begin to talk about David Mitchell’s The Bone ClocksTouted as Mitchell’s most ambitious, most “Mitchell-esque” novel ever, this massive beauty of a book kept me enthralled for an entire weekend. I devoured this book, unable to put it down. I took it with me as my sister and I went around Toronto, lugging the 600+ pages just for the briefest snippets stolen on the subway, or the blissfully long wait for a movie to begin… and the weight was so worth it.

First: major, major kudos to Peter Mendelsund and Oliver Munday for this beautiful cover. All respect for the UK cover, but this one has such ethereal beauty that I would encourage purchasing a copy just for the cover art (something that in the past, I’ve only really suggested for Chip Kidd covers).

Then, the story itself is a series of layers that spans about a century, with all of the stories delicately, intricately intertwined. I wish I were more familiar with Mitchell’s body of work, as I’ve heard he includes a lot of characters from previous books in this story, and it would have been pretty mind-blowing to recognize them as they appeared. The story begins with fifteen-year-old Holly Sykes, who runs away from home after an argument with her mother. As a child, she used to hear what she called “the radio people,” mysterious figures who we barely understand till much later in the book. A psychologist “cures” Holly of these visions, but unfortunately, she can never truly escape. The story follows her journey, and the lives of the people she touches — a Cambridge scholarship boy, a war journalist unable to connect with his family, a middle-aged writer who goes too far in beating down his rival, and so on. Each of these figures narrates a section of the story, and each of them encounters “the radio people,” at times with horrifying results.

The story reminds me of Stephen King’s books, with its creepy, surreal feel, and also of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life in its epic sweep yet intimate tone. While I felt that Atkinson’s Life After Life fell short of its promise, Mitchell holds the narrative together well, and I found The Bone Clocks to be a much better constructed book. The book jacket describes the novel as “kaleidoscopic” and that’s a great way to describe it. Every time I felt like I was just beginning to grasp the story, something else happens, and it always felt like I was just glancing off the edge of what the story was really about.

Around three quarters of the way into the novel, we finally learn what the mysterious radio people are about, and the story settles pretty firmly into supernatural thriller mode. We learn about an age old battle between good and evil, with Holly and the other characters merely innocent pawns. I was expecting the stakes to be somewhat higher and the battle to be somewhat more epic, but I still love how all the threads came together, especially the significance of the image on the US cover.

My only real disappointment with this book was the final section. I’m sure Mitchell had his reasons for extending the story that far into the future, but after such a fantastical, epic, sweeping narrative in the previous sections, this one just felt like a letdown. It was a return to a feeling of reality, and a way to tie up remaining loose ends, and I just felt about it like I did about the epilogue of Harry Potter.

Still, overall, a beautiful, fantastic story. I love David Mitchell’s Ghostwrittennumber9dream and Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet – a wide range of stories that demonstrates how versatile this author isThe Bone Clocks, by many accounts, is his most ambitious yet, and in true David Mitchell form, he pulls it off with flair.

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Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Playing with Matches, Suri Rosen

20578768When her sister’s heart is broken, 16 year old Raina Resnick decides to set up the anonymous matchmaking service “Match Maven” and help her sister find true love. Leah, after all, is twenty-three and unmarried, and as Raina points out, this is a big deal because “you have to think in dog years when you’re single in a traditional Jewish community” (page 31).

Playing with Matches is a hilarious tale of matchmaking, filled with increasingly ludicrous scenarios and yet anchored throughout by Raina’s very real desire to reconnect with her sister. The Match Maven dates are hilarious — a scene involving a Porta Potty is just so over the top that all you can do is laugh. For anyone who’s tried online dating and had some pretty horrific experiences, this book will make you feel better about your love life. And yet there is also the story of Esther, an elderly woman who lost her husband to a brain aneurysm years ago and is now looking for a second chance at love. Just as Raina does, we can’t help but feel invested in these singles asking for help, and just like Raina, we want them to find their perfect match.

However, it is Leah’s search for a match that really propels the story. As the anonymous “Match Maven,” Raina is able to offer advice and connect with Leah at the same time as Leah is pulling away from her sister in real life. Honestly, Leah’s conversations with Match Maven made me really uncomfortable — it’s Leah’s decision whom to trust with her feelings, and she was really being tricked into revealing them to her sister. I understood why Raina felt she had to do it, and how because of her persona as Match Maven, Raina couldn’t really do much to stop it. Still, it felt like an invasion of her privacy, and despite the way things eventually turn out, it still felt like a betrayal of trust. More a criticism of a character’s actions than a criticism of the book itself, but I do wish this aspect of it had been explored a bit more.

The novel also stretches credibility, though that might just be my unfamiliarity with Jewish matchmaking customs in the 21st century. If a matchmaker is supposed to broker the deal from the first date all the way to the wedding, and if, like a wedding planner, she must be on hand to help deal with disasters as Raina is, is it believable that the matchmaker remain anonymous? Also, do matchmakers render the service for free, or are they usually paid? None of Raina’s clients ever enquire about fees, or, if she is anonymous, about methods of payment. Given the level of commitment required and the significance of the task, I’d think matchmaking would be a profession, and therefore a paid service, rather than something one does for strangers just out of the goodness of their hearts. I of course know nothing about traditional Jewish matchmaking rituals — for example, I didn’t realize it was still so prevalent in the 21st century — and this book makes me want to learn more.

Still, Rosen speaks of Jewish customs with an ease and confidence that Eve Harris lacks in The Marrying of Chauni Kaufman, an “Orthodox Jewish Pride and Prejudice” that struck me as presenting an expertise on a culture without adequate understanding. I don’t know how accurate Rosen’s portrayal of Jewish customs is, but her book is at least much more natural in tone and affectionate about these customs. Playing with Matches is also less concerned with detailing all the various aspects of the traditions — rather, it concerns itself much more with the story, providing enough details that I knew what was going on but not bombarding me with so much information that it felt like more like a Wikipedia article than a novel.

Playing with Matches is a great book for the weekend. The book blurb describes Raina’s matchmaking service as a cross between Jane Austen’s Emma, Dear Abby and Yenta the matchmaker, and that’s pretty much on point. Some of the plot threads were too neatly resolved and at times, Raina’s streak of bad luck felt like a ploy by the author to garner sympathy for the character. But overall, the story was a lot of fun to read, and featured a cast of characters you want to succeed in their search for true love.

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Thank you to ECW Press for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review | Project Superhero, E. Paul Zehr and Kris Pearn (illus.)

20578719I have to admit, the minute I saw this cover, Project Superhero went right to the top of my TBR pile. I also have to admit that I mistakenly thought it was a graphic novel about a young girl who creates actual superhero powers for herself. The actual premise of the story is somewhat similar, though much more grounded in reality and real-life heroes than the caped crusader teen my mind had conjured up from this cover.

13 year old Jessie and her classmates are given a year-long research project on superheroes, which culminates in the Superhero Slam, a head-to-head debate about which superhero reigns supreme, given a set of characteristics like agility, recovery and teamwork. A shy comic book nerd, Jessie is both thrilled by the subject of the assignment and terrified at the need for public speaking at the end of the project. She decides to champion Batgirl, who doesn’t have superpowers but rather relies on training and hard work to achieve great things. Through the year, Jessie documents her work on the project, which involves training in karate to become as strong as Batgirl, and which also connects her with real life heroes such as Olympian Hayley Wickenheiser, NASA astronaut Nicole Stott and Batgirl writer Brian Q. Miller, among others.

According to the advance reading copy I received, author E. Paul Zehr is known for using superheroes as a metaphor to communicate science. The book does a good job of teaching scientific principles, using both Jessie’s research on superheroes and her karate lessons. For example, an observation about how karate lessons are affecting her mentally as well as physically leads to a brief description of the cerebellum and the 100 billion neurons in the brain. Because the science is presented in line with something tangible like karate training or Batgirl powers, it’s a fun, easy way to learn. Heck, I learned things I don’t even remember taking up in school.

I love the premise behind this book, particularly the question on what makes a hero, and the vibe that girls can do anything, because science! Even a shy comic book nerd like Jessie can become a physically strong karateka with the confidence to debate her classmate in front of the entire school. I love that real-life heroes took the time to contribute to this project, and practically every other chapter is a brief interview or note from a notable name that inspires Jessie (and therefore the reader) to have confidence in her ability to achieve her goals.

The book is most valuable as an educational resource and a source of inspiration from these real life individuals, rather than for the story itself. The idea of the Superhero Slam held promise, but the debate itself wasn’t exciting. Part of me wishes Jessie’s class had been allowed to create their own superheroes rather than use ready-made DC and Marvel characters. If you could be any kind of superhero, what would you be and why? I believe those answers will be much more interesting, and much more revealing, than a canned debate on why Ironman isn’t as agile as Captain America. As well, due to the format of the story, superheroes other than Batgirl herself are given fairly short shrift — we learn next to nothing about the actual superhero characters, and so Jessie’s nervousness about some of her match ups fail to register any actual impact. And the way the debate ended made no sense to me. The framing device helps target the message towards its readers, but almost feels superfluous by the end.

Jessie is 13, but the book itself seems to skew more towards a younger demographic. The illustrations are absolutely awesome, and will definitely keep readers turning the page. The premise is inspiring, and I hope the letters from familiar names will inspire young readers to become real-life heroes themselves.

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Thank you to ECW Press for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.