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.

 

Review | After I’m Gone, Laura Lippman

18089975I remember being very moved by Laura Lippman’s earlier work I’d Know You AnywhereAfter I’m Gone didn’t have quite the same impact on me, but it definitely kept me turning the pages way past my bedtime. Con man Felix Brewer disappears without a trace, leaving behind his wife, three daughters and a mistress. If this sounds like a story ripped from the headlines, that’s because it is: the novel is inspired by the true story of Julius Salsbury, the head of a large gambling operation in Baltimore in the 1970s.

Ten years after Felix disappears, his mistress Julie goes missing. Everyone assumes she’s gone to join Felix, but her body is discovered in a secluded park a few days later. Fast forward twenty six years and retired detective Roberto “Sandy” Sanchez is investigating the case of Julie’s death. No one seems overly concerned about who had killed Julie and why, but Sanchez is the classic dogged detective, who won’t rest until he finds justice for a victim no one cares about.

More than the hunt for Julie’s killer, the novel is about the lives of the women Felix left behind. We learn about his relationship with his wife Bambi, how they fell in love and how the relationship eventually hit its rocky patch. We meet his daughters, and how they dealt not just with their father’s disappearance, but also with his betrayal of their mother. And Julie, of course, and the mistakes that eventually cost her her life. Through it all, Felix remains a major force in their lives. He’s utterly unlikeable, and while generally good-intentioned, his insecurities and weakness for easy money end up destroying not just his life but the lives of the women around him.

After I’m Gone is an enjoyable read, with an entertaining look at family and romantic drama. The story really hits its mark near the end, where a series of revelations reveals the strength of the family ties among the remaining women. The epilogue takes us back to Felix, and ties the whole story up where it began — with the actions of one man.

What happens to someone’s loved ones when he takes the easy way out? What happens when he does get away with it, but the people around him are left to pick up the pieces. After I’m Gone is a frustrating read in some ways — even though the murderer is eventually caught, I can’t help but feel that justice has ultimately not been served — yet all too believable. One person’s choices can indeed ruin the lives of people around him, and After I’m Gone shows just how far reaching this impact can be.

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

Review | Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Year of Pilgrimage, Haruki Murakami

20663667“From July of his sophomore year in college until the following January, all Tsukuru Tazaki could think about was dying.” So begins one of Haruki Murakami’s loveliest, most lyrical novels ever. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Year of Pilgrimage marks the author’s return away from the sprawling, surrealistic narrative style of 2011’s 1Q84 to the lyrical realism of 1987’s Norwegian Wood.

Tsukuru Tazaki grew up with a tight-knit group of five friends in high school, the kind of friendship children imagine will last forever. Yet in college, Tsukuru is kicked out of the group with explanation. Something has happened, but none of his friends would tell him what. The novel takes place years later, when Tsukuru, now in his 30s, takes his girlfriend Sara’s advice to solve the mystery that has haunted him since: why did his friends reject him so completely and so suddenly?

The mystery behind the betrayal propels the story forward, but discovering the answer is far from the core of the story. Rather, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is about discovering oneself, about coming to an understanding about one’s place in the world, and about how childhood experiences will have power over us long into adulthood. The title of the book comes from an inside joke among Tsukuru’s friends, that with the exception of Tsukuru, all of them have colours in their names — red, blue, white, black. They each have vibrant personalities as well, colourful characters to match colourful names — one is an intellectual, another is a jock, a third is a beautiful musician and the fourth is a comedian. In contrast, Tsukuru is colourless not just in name, but in personality — he believes he is extraordinary only in being absolutely ordinary, and even wonders what he brings to the group’s friendship. Though he grows up to have an impressive job as an engineer of train stations, he dismisses it as merely a mechanical skill at being able to organize things. His name as well is symbolic. Tsukuru means “to make” — while the Chinese character could be written to mean either “to create” or “to make,” his father had chosen the more prosaic definition, not wanting to give his son the burden of a grandiose name. And this resistance to grandiosity has defined Tsukuru all his life.

This of course is Tsukuru’s view of himself, and when he meets up with old friends, he discovers a very different view of himself and his fit into the group dynamic. It’s an eye opening experience for Tsukuru, and likely one many readers can relate to. How we view ourselves is usually not how others view us, and realizing the discrepancy is a fascinating experience.

Like all Murakami works, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is rich in symbolism and beautifully told. The novel is a masterclass in symbolism — some may very well consider it overdone, but I love how consistent the tropes are throughout. Colour is repeated time and again; even in university, Tsukuru meets a new friend Haida, whose name means grey, and who later features in a feverish dream sequence (that may or may not have been real) with Tsukuru’s high school friends whose names mean black and white. Music, of course, is classic Murakami, and here we have the usual references to classical music, as well as a pianist among Tsukuru’s high school friends, and a fable told about a musician which later links to another story told about a train station. It all ties in perfectly, and despite the grounding in realism, the story feels very much like a fable, a mosaic of a tale where all the parts fit together to make a breathtaking whole.

There’s also a musicality and a strong sense of poetry to Murakami’s language, even in translation, and this, more than his other books, made me wish I could read the original Japanese. Take for example this passage:

As he gazed at the four names on the screen, and considered the memories those names brought back, he felt the past silently mingling with the present, as a time that should have been long gone hovered in the air around him. Like odorless, colorless smoke leaking into the room through a small crack in the door. [p. 119]

And of course, my favourite part of any Murakami book and the reason I buy them in hardcover: Chip Kidd’s jacket design is absolute perfection. Probably my second favourite Murakami cover (nothing beats 1Q84!), and I admit when I first saw the cover online last year, I was disappointed. But I should’ve known Chip Kidd wouldn’t let me down — the beauty of this jacket design is in the layers, and this piece of artistry alone is well worth purchasing the hardcover.

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