Review | The Strange Library, Haruki Murakami

01artsbeat-murakami-articleInline“The library was even more hushed than usual.” So begins this beautiful, haunting tale. It’s a masterful opening line — atmospheric, evocative, and for this reader, pregnant with promise. What wonders lie within a library “more hushed than usual”?

In The Strange Library, these wonders are dark indeed. A boy visits the library for an assignment and encounters a “little old man” who imprisons him in the basement and forces him to read. “Because brains  packed with knowledge are yummy, that’s why,” explains the old man’s reluctant assistant, a sheep man. “They’re nice and creamy. And sort of grainy at the same time.”

The story then follows the boy’s attempt to escape, aided by the sheepman and a mysterious, voiceless girl. The question of whether or not he succeeds feels almost inconsequential. The entire narrative feels like a fevered dream — the best of Murakami distilled into a child’s fairy tale.

The Strange Library is, in a word, beautiful. I’ve long been a fan of Chip Kidd (I even bought Murakami’s 1Q84 in hardcover for Kidd’s delicate tissue layered cover), and Kidd’s work in this volume is beyond words. The mere experience of opening the book feels like opening a present. And the illustrations throughout enhance the dreamscape Murakami has created, without giving anything away.

Murakami’s language as well deserves praise, as does Ted Goossen’s translation. The cadence is hypnotic, almost seductive, lulling the reader into a space where sheep men exist and the state of the moon determines one’s fate. It’s a quick read, but I hesitate to call it an easy one. I don’t think I quite understood what I read, and I mean that in the best possible way. There’s so much more to this story than the actual narrative, and Kidd’s mysterious illustrations as well hint at a universe beyond the page.

The young boy in the story sets out to research taxes in the Ottoman Empire, and ends up the star of a supernatural adventure. So too will the reader of this text set out to read a short, illustrated fable, and realize that so much of the story still lies in the white space. I will definitely have to re-read this one.

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

Review | The Boston Girl, Anita Diamant

22450859How did you get to be the woman you are today? Eighty-five year old Addie Baum is asked this question by her granddaughter, and thus begins a reflection on a young woman’s life in 20th century America. In Anita Diamant’s The Boston Girl, we learn about Addie’s involvement with a women’s reading society, her battles with sexism in the field of journalism, and her budding romance with her eventual husband.

Diamant has created a cast of memorable characters, and I loved reading about Addie’s family (overbearing mother, saintly yet unhappy sister, all mostly just trying to make the best of life in a new country) and friends (the street smart, artistic best friend, the women fighting for female liberation, a range of women trying to carve a better place for women in general).

The Boston Girl is a lovely, breezy read. The story covers major historical events like World War I and the rise of first wave feminism, yet presents them with an intimate, personal air. We feel much like Addie’s granddaughter, listening in rapt fascination to a woman whose story will likely never be in the history books and yet is part of history all the same.

The rise of feminism is my favourite part of the novel, which may explain my disappointment that Addie’s narration ends more or less with her marriage. On one hand, I like that Addie’s story is probably a more common one for women at the time, and that we have a tale many grandmothers can relate to, rather than a girl power type manifesto. I also know, logically, that of course she’ll meet a man, who will then become the grandfather of the young woman to whom the story is told. Also logically, there’s nothing that says she didn’t continue with her journalistic crusades after marriage. Still, on the other hand, part of me wishes the happy ending had involved making a landmark change in the fight for women’s liberation, rather than settling down into being a wife and mother.

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Thank you to Simon and Schuster for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | After, Anna Todd

22557520Anna Todd’s After is a classic “good girl meets bad boy” love story that began as a fan fiction romance about teen heartthrob Harry Styles (of British boy band One Direction). It became such an online phenomenon that the story has since published by traditional book publisher Simon and Schuster and movie rights have been optioned.

After is a fun, entertaining read, and I zipped through the book in a weekend. Hardin (the Harry Styles character, renamed for publication) is definitely not my choice in boyfriend, whether literary or real life, but I think that’s just me being old. I can imagine teenage me going gooey at his broody grouchiness. As Anna Todd said when I met her at Indigo, there’s something undeniably attractive about being the one woman special enough to make the bad boy want to change. And indeed, as with TwilightFifty Shades of Grey, Wuthering Heights , Pride and Prejudice and other such influences for this book, in After, bad boy Hardin falls for good girl Tessa and finds the impetus to change his ways.

As a hero, Hardin insults Tessa, smirks a lot (though nowhere near as much as Edward Cullen) and acts like he’s too cool for practically everything. I had been dreading a controlling, abusive bad boy type, but he struck me more as bratty than abusive. The romance and their arguments felt immature, more Sweet Valley High than Fifty Shades of Grey, and it was more amusing than anything.

To Anna Todd’s credit, Tessa isn’t the precious snowflake that Bella Swan and Ana Steele are. She’s a young, innocent girl who is so prim and proper at the beginning that even I wanted to tell her to loosen up. She’s a realistic character, even with her odd quirk of setting alarms for every single bit of her day, but her personality shift happened much too quickly. The odd quirk of setting multiple alarms was abandoned fairly early on, and while she never turned into a Jessica Wakefield, she still felt like a completely different person a few chapters into the story.

To be honest, the turbulence of their relationship didn’t bother me as much as the fairy tale nature of Tessa’s internship. Minor spoiler alert for the rest of this paragraph: she lands a dream internship at a publishing company thanks to Hardin’s family connections (shades of Fifty Shades here). Thing is, the internship is so good that it stretches credulity past the breaking point — it’s paid, for one, and despite the job being just a part-time internship, the pay is enough for rent. Also, Tessa gets her own computer, her own phone line and her own office. Then, during her first day, the head of the company gives her a stack of manuscript submissions and tells her to send on to him any manuscripts she thinks worth publishing, and to throw away any that she doesn’t like. Seriously? I’ve never worked in publishing, so there may be some truth to this, for all I know. But I doubt it. Now, granted, a lot of my response is sour grapes at not having my own office, but well, even a wish fulfillment fantasy should have some credence of believability, no?

That being said, the romance was entertaining to read. There were some troubling aspects, but again, I think Hardin’s brand of bad boy was just too immature for me to really get into. Tessa’s jealousy over Hardin’s past relationships leads to some pretty stupid decisions, but again, it all feels very high schoolish. I generally like YA, and I know there are adult fans of this story. I’m just not one of them — I think I’m just too curmudgeonly and at multiple times wanted to tell the characters to grow up. But I did enjoy reading the book, and I even might pick up the next book in the series for a snowy weekend.

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Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Want You Dead, Peter James

20613547The best part about a mystery series is believing that no matter how horrific the villain is, he will get his comeuppance eventually, because the series hero is so awesome. This is particularly true for Want You Dead, 10th in Peter James’ Roy Grace series. Villain Bryce Laurent is the stuff of women’s nightmares — handsome, rich and charming, until he turns out to be creepy, controlling and obsessed with you. The heroine/potential victim is Red Cameron, a realtor who met Bryce on an online dating site. As the story begins, she has already broken up with Bryce and is unaware that he has been stalking her ever since the breakup, biding his time until he can make her sorry she ever dumped him.

This story reminds me somewhat of Elizabeth Haynes’ Into the Darkest Corner. James doesn’t delve as deeply into the psychological effects of having a stalker, but he does hammer home the horrible point that as much as Red thinks she’s safe, she can never be completely free of Bryce. James, who reminded me of Giles the librarian from Buffy when I met him years ago, is unsettlingly convincing in his description of Bryce’s fantasies for revenge. You will be cheering Roy Grace and his team on all the way through.

unnamedThis 10th instalment in the series also brings big things for Roy Grace. (SPOILER ALERT if you’re not caught up to date with the series.) he’s days away from his wedding to the forensic pathologist Cleo, and also utterly unaware that his wife (officially declared dead in an earlier book) is alive and planning to come back into his life. There is a dream sequence I didn’t like — too cutesy a plot device — but overall, it’s great to see Grace preparing to settle down and lead a happy family life. Throughout the story, the wedding and honeymoon are mentioned with Grace’s determination to take the break from his work to be with his new wife. In a couple of scenes, he rejects phone calls from work so that he can focus fully on being with Cleo. I love that — these little details make Grace seem more real as a human being, beyond his skills as a detective.

I devoured Want You Dead in a single weekend. My poor cat was shooting me the side eye for neglecting both him and my chores as I kept turning the pages. It was well worth it, though. And Mr. James — I cheered out loud at the final chapter. Thank you for that ending.

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

Review | Choose Your Own Autobiography, Neil Patrick Harris

nph_bookLeave it to Neil Patrick Harris to take the celebrity memoir to an all new, absolutely freaking awesome level and dare I say, legen (wait for it) dary heights. I grew up on Choose Your Own Adventure books and Neil Patrick Harris (Doogie Howser was one of my first and biggest celebrity crushes), so combining both just set my girly little heart all a-flutter. I’ll be honest — I was afraid the Choose Your Own Adventure format was too gimmicky to work for an autobiography — but I also knew that if anyone (celebrity or otherwise) could pull it off, it would be Neil Patrick Harris.

And pull it off he did. I cannot fangirl enough over NPH’s Choose Your Own Autobiographywhich was just three hundred pages of pure, unadulterated awesomeness. As a memoir, it doesn’t delve too deep, nor does it make any shocking revelations — partly due to format, though also likely due to NPH’s notoriously private nature and by all accounts, his actually having had a happy childhood. (This autobiography does provide the option of having an unhappy childhood, which leads to one of the very few comedic hiccups in the book. With multiple storylines to choose from, some are inevitably funnier and more entertaining than others.)

The best part about the format is that it puts the reader right in NPH’s shoes and takes you on quite a number of possible adventures. Just beginning the story is exciting — where will this adventure lead you? — and well, living NPH’s life is just a tad more glamorous than living my own. My first foray into being NPH, I ended up a career meat slicer at a deli and missing out on Doogie Howser etc altogether. This, I must admit, is pretty much how my Choose Your Own Adventure forays usually ended, except with myself being eaten by a crocodile or buried alive with an Egyptian mummy. Fortunately, this format gives us multiple chances to get it right.

My second attempt at living NPH’s life did get me into Doogie Howser, then eventually I meet the “rakishly handsome James Dean-like hot dude” David Burtka. That is probably my favourite chapter of the entire book, because it features David’s handwritten commentary about the meeting. For example, the James Dean description is circled and an arrow leads to the phrase “I wish!” When NPH writes that David is “well rounded,” David cracks “You calling me fat?” Then, in a line that just made me swoon, NPH says that if David is interested in you, “it’s because he’s decided you’re the kind of guy he wants to be with long-term. Longer-term. Longest-term.” Beside that in brackets, is David’s handwriting: “For forever term.”

After falling in love with David Burtka, I then happily go on work with Joss Whedon on Dr. Horrible and somehow make some other choices that end up with my drowning in quicksand. Seriously though, those choices were totally reasonable, and there was no reason I should have ended up in quicksand. No matter, on to take three.

In my third attempt at NPH’s life, I have children with David and learn the story behind their birth. NPH’s love for these kids just radiates off the page, and you have to check out this Oprah episode about their house and family because it’s all just too adorable. Then I go on to my personal ultimate goal: hosting various awards shows and learn the story behind the epic Tony’s opener “It’s Not Just for Gays Anymore.”

I may have messed up the order in which I did these things, but, as with Choose Your Own Adventure books, it doesn’t matter. Each attempt at a life is a whole new adventure, and I figure each set of choices leads to you living NPH’s life in a completely different way. I completely missed out on How I Met Your Mother, performing on Broadway, being a magician and possibly a list of other things from NPH’s life that I don’t even know about. No matter, the book is here and waiting for me to step into NPH’s shoes once again. And again and again and so on, because NPH’s life is definitely one you’d want to experience over and over again.

Still need a bit more convincing? Hear from the man himself!

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Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. For more information on the book, visit nphbook.com.

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.