About Jaclyn

I'm a total bookaholic! Fiction, non-fiction, mysteries, YA, science fiction, I read practically anything and everything. I also love talking about books, and chatting about books with people who love them as much as I do!

Review | How Will I Know You? Jessica Treadway

29775861How Will I Know You? tells the story of the murder of Joy, a teen girl in a small town, from the perspectives of four people involved in the case: Susanne, Joy’s mother; Martin, a Black graduate student and Susanne’s TA who has been arrested for the crime; Harper, Joy’s best friend and potential eyewitness; and Tom, a rescue diver and son-in-law of the town’s police chief. As with any small town in a murder mystery, there are lots of secrets and hidden scandals among the people in Joy’s circle, and these all come to light as the truth behind Joy’s death is revealed.

The identity of the murderer wasn’t much of a surprise to me, so the best part of the book for me wasn’t so much the whodunnit angle as it was learning about the people in the town and the things they are now afraid will be revealed about their lives. Susanne’s part of the story fell a bit flat for me, and Martin’s part of the story was interesting, but it was Tom and Harper’s stories that really stood out for me. Tom struggles with his inability to impress his father-in-law and his fear that his wife sides with her parents over him. In some of my favourite scenes, Tom confronts her about telling her parents some really big news before coming to him. Harper’s story is just as compelling, as she tries to keep up with Joy’s rising popularity only to be rebuffed time and again. The memory of how Joy had treated her in the last few months colours her grief over Joy’s death, and her flashback scenes were some of the strongest in the book.

Treadway also explores the significance of racial bias in this book, particularly in Martin being arrested despite the evidence being circumstantial. The sheer number of race-based microaggressions in the story felt a bit heavy-handed at times, though not necessarily unrealistic. I particularly like the part where Martin’s artwork is questioned on the basis of its “authenticity” in representing “the Black experience.” It’s almost satirical, yet still something I can actually imagine happening at an art show or competition.

How Will I Know You? is a story practically made for TV. The murder itself is a catalyst that sets off webs of stories for an intriguing cast of characters, and an in-depth exploration of crime and scandal in a small town.

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Thank you to Hachette Book Group Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Class, Lucinda Rosenfeld

29799814Lucinda Rosenfeld’s Class is a satirical novel about a bleeding heart liberal white woman whose commitment to her ideals is challenged when a troubled student from a nearby housing project begins bullying children in her daughter’s class. Rosenfeld’s protagonist Karen Kipple is proud to send her daughter Ruby to a public school where few of children are white or Asian rather than a private prep academy. She also wonders if it’s a good thing that her best friend amongst the mothers is Black and that the mother she despises the most — the head of the PTA — is white. When some of the parents begin complaining about the bully, who happens to be Black, and Ruby’s best friend is transferred to a private school, Karen voices her sympathy for the boy’s underprivileged background and is confused when her Black best friend dismisses him as trouble.

The satire is gentle, and the humour is sharp at times but the edge is blunted by the protagonist’s earnestness. Rosenfeld sends up not so much the hypocrisy as the naivete of liberalism, where some proponents present the appearance of liberal values but are unwilling to get their hands dirty when things get personal.

The humour is also unsustainable in the long run — within a couple of chapters, I was beginning to tire of the snark, and it was almost a relief when Rosenfeld shifts to a more earnest tone. Karen makes a momentous decision that makes her question her liberal street cred, but more importantly, forces her to face the reality of her unconscious biases. We may roll our eyes at some of Karen’s actions, but can never bring ourselves to laugh at her. A subplot involving a billionaire felt unnecessary and another subplot involving PTA funds was true to the characters but honestly felt cheesy and didactic rather than cheer-worthy as I think it was meant to be. Still, I liked the way things turned out and I thought the ending made sense.

Overall, I think the satire could have used a bit more bite, and I think the story really picked up with the more straightforward latter half of the novel.

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Thank you to Hachette Book Group for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Witches of New York, Ami McKay

20053031The Witches of New York is an entertaining read, about two witches who take a third, young yet powerful witch under their wing in 1880s New York. Adelaide Thom (Moth from McKay’s earlier book The Virgin Cure) and Eleanor St. Clair operate a tea shop that doubles as an apothecary and fortune telling space. It’s 200 years after the Salem witch trials, but religious fervour forces them to keep their powers under wraps. Chance, destiny and a touch of magic conspire to bring Beatrice Dunn to their door seeking employment, and the novel goes on to chronicle her development as a witch and the three women’s conflict with a rather obsessive evangelist on a killing spree.

 

The book reminded me somewhat of the TV show Charmed, when Rose McGowan joins the cast as a new Halliwell sister, completing the gap eldest sister Prue’s death left in the Power of Three. Similar to Rose McGowan’s role, Beatrice’s arrival appears to complete the circle of power among Adelaide and Eleanor, and I can easily imagine a long-running series of their adventures.

Also similar to Charmed, Witches of New York has a lighthearted feel. Despite the terrible things being done by the villain, there isn’t too much of a sense of danger throughout. We just know these kick-ass women will win at the end; the only question is how. There are also ghosts who mostly want to help them (one ghost, who haunts the tea shop, is presented as a nuisance but I thought she was actually a really sad figure) and fairies called Dearlies who send portentous dreams at night (they had their purpose but were a bit much for me). There is also romance, and that subplot was actually my favourite as I thought it was really sweet.

Overall, this is a fun, quick read whose style reminds me somewhat of Charmed and Practical Magic. If the idea of historical fiction about kick-ass women with magical powers appeals to youyou’ll likely enjoy this book. And if you enjoy reading books in a series, the ending leaves some plot threads still loose, so a sequel is likely in the works.

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

Review | Curious Minds, Janet Evanovich and Phoef Sutton

28524313Curious Minds is a mystery-adventure caper featuring a pair of quirky and seemingly incompatible leads that I think may work better on the screen rather than as a book. Without charismatic actors to bring Knight and Moon to life, they just came off as trying a bit too hard to be funny but instead are being a jerk (Knight) or simply annoying (Moon). I’m sure I must’ve read Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels before. I seem to remember enjoying them, and I know humour is one of the trademarks of her mysteries, but the humour in Curious Minds just fell flat for me. While the mystery aspect was interesting, it also seemed more set up for a caper type adventure for the leads than an actual puzzle to solve, which makes the characters and the humour much more important to get right.

Curious Minds stars the unlikely duo of Emerson Knight, an introverted, eccentric and handsome billionaire, and Riley Moon, a feisty financial analyst assigned essentially to babysit Emerson when he makes the unusual request to withdraw all his gold from the bank. Riley is highly educated and supposed to be brilliant and super talented, but is surprisingly naive about a lot of things, which I gather is meant to make her cute and endearing. Emerson is rude and condescending, but really does care for Riley in his way, so then sexual tension develops. Bad guys want to keep Emerson from his gold, so Emerson needs Riley’s help. And so on and so forth. There are even Batman-type gadgets thrown into the mix.

A book that follows a standard formula isn’t necessarily a bad thing for me, but this just didn’t quite work. That being said, it was an entertaining story to read, and I think I may have enjoyed it more as a buddy comedy on TV. I’m afraid I haven’t read a Stephanie Plum novel in a while, so apart from a vague memory that I did enjoy that series, I’m not sure how this compares and how Evanovich fans will respond to this. I may pick up a future Stephanie Plum novel, but I think I’ll give this series a pass.

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

Review | Here I Am, Jonathan Safran Foer

hereiamHere I Am is such a complex, textured, immense story that it took me a while to formulate this review. My Goodreads review admits needing to sit with my feelings for a while, as I wasn’t quite sure how to do justice to the reading experience. That’s an idea of the impact this book had on me while I read, and until now, I’m still not sure I completely understand why. Here I Am is a doorstop of a book, 576 pages that feels longer because the author has packed so much in. It’s sprawling in scope in that it contextualizes protagonist Jacob Bloch’s wrestling with his Jewish identity within the framework of a war in the Middle East, yet it’s also intimate in focus in that the significance of world events are pulled back into the deterioration of the Bloch family.

Here I Am is a book that begs to be teased apart, one that compels the reader to confront the very real questions of identity, family and legacy that Jacob is facing. It’s a hefty volume that explores its issues explicitly, with extensive conversations between characters, yet that offers no easy answers. It’s a story to dive right into, yet not quite to lose oneself in.

What does it mean to be Jewish in North America? Jacob Bloch isn’t particularly devout, but being Jewish plays a big part in his concept of family, as something that spans generations from his father Isaac through him and his wife Julia and to their children. So it’s a big deal when their eldest son Sam decides he doesn’t want a bar mitzvah. Worse, Jacob feels his marriage to Julia deteriorating. In one scene, the narrator recounts almost two full pages of dialogue between the couple, each line revealing restrained affection and love, yet prefaces it with the phrase “if they’d said what they were thinking.” The scene ends thus:

But he didn’t say anything and neither did she. Not because the words were deliberately withheld but because the pipeline between them was too occluded for such bravery. Too many small accumulations, wrong words, absences of words… [p. 59]

I love this because I expected a big dramatic moment, yet a marriage declining because of a series of kind words left unspoken feels more real.

There’s enough drama within the family that I first wondered if including a subplot about conflict in the Middle East was even necessary. But then I realized that this subplot was key in highlighting how conflicted Jacob felt about how he expresses his Jewish identity. His life of comfort in America is contrasted with his cousin Tamir’s military service in Israel:

[Tamir had] grown up while Jacob had just grown in. He’d fought for his homeland, while Jacob spent entire nights debating whether that stupid New Yorker poster where New York is bigger than everything else would look better on this wall or that one. He tried not to get killed, while Jacob tried not to die of boredom. [p. 224]

Jacob is forced to confront this comparison when Tamir and his family come for a visit. At one point, Jacob says that Tamir and his family’s personality traits are “not their Israeliness… it’s just them,” but he clearly ascribes something to their “Israeliness,” a rather amorphous sense that they are more Jewish than he. I’m not Jewish, so I can’t say how this will resonate with Jewish readers, but it does resonate with me as an immigrant. How Filipino am I still now that I’ve become Canadian, and am I any less Filipino for having moved away? If I ever have children, how Filipino will they be, and in this era of globalization, how much does that even matter? These are questions I wonder about, and while I don’t know how other readers will respond, I do think there’s something in Jacob’s struggle that feels universal. The Middle Eastern conflict in Here I Am prompts Jacob to confront his comfortable lifestyle and ask himself how Jewish he can actually consider himself to be.

The title Here I Am comes from the story of Abraham, which is told in some variation across the three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, when God comes looking for Abraham and his sacrifice, Abraham responds “Here I am.” As a Catholic, I learned that this story is about Abraham’s willingness to obey God, no matter the cost. According to Wikipedia (and, I believe, mentioned in the novel as well), many Jewish scholars teach that the story is about God testing Abraham’s loyalty, and that Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son is him passing the test. In Here I Am, Israel calls for aid and Jacob faces his own test.

Here I Am is a thought-provoking, beautifully written novel that I recommend savouring. This is Foer’s first novel in eleven years, and well worth the wait.

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

 

Author Q&A | The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, Meg Elison

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When the publicists for Meg Elison’s The Book of the Unnamed Midwife reached out and called the book “a modern-day look at women’s equality and access to reproductive health,” I was immediately intrigued. I think it’s a particularly timely and relevant topic, and I love seeing it explored in fiction.

SYNOPSIS

Philip K. Dick Award Winner for Distinguished Science Fiction

When she fell asleep, the world was doomed. When she awoke, it was dead.

In the wake of a fever that decimated the earth’s population—killing women and children and making childbirth deadly for the mother and infant—the midwife must pick her way through the bones of the world she once knew to find her place in this dangerous new one. Gone are the pillars of civilization. All that remains is power—and the strong who possess it.

A few women like her survived, though they are scarce. Even fewer are safe from the clans of men, who, driven by fear, seek to control those remaining. To preserve her freedom, she dons men’s clothing, goes by false names, and avoids as many people as possible. But as the world continues to grapple with its terrible circumstances, she’ll discover a role greater than chasing a pale imitation of independence.

After all, if humanity is to be reborn, someone must be its guide.

Its sequel, The Book of Etta, comes out February 2017.

Q&A with Meg Elison

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Meg Elison is a high school dropout and a graduate of UC Berkeley. Her debut novel, The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, won the 2014 Philip K. Dick Award. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and writes like she’s running out of time.

In your own words, can you tell us about The Book of the Unnamed Midwife?

I began with a burning injustice in birth culture and misogyny, and I read the entire canon of post-apocalyptic fiction because I wanted to end the world, over and over. The books delivered that, sometimes sadly, sometimes angrily. But even the best ones scarcely dealt with women at all. I was at Berkeley when I began it, and I remember asking one of my professors if the main female character in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises was meant to be read as barren, as an analogue to the protagonist’s castration. The professor, who had spent twice my lifespan behind the podium, blinked and told me he had no idea; the question had just never come up. Science fiction and post-apocalypse fiction was the same. Very few writers seemed to consider that all these furtive sex scenes might end in pregnancy, or that these refugees from the end of the world might need tampons. With a few exceptions, like Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and P.D. James’ Children of Men, the genre seemed barbarously ignorant of women’s lives. So the book began to take shape because it needed to exist.

In The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, birth control and a woman’s right to bodily autonomy are central to the plot, what inspired you to write about this subject?

I’ve watched the War on Women rage on and on, with the rollback of abortion rights from state to state and an insidious slide back into casual misogyny in common rhetoric and culture. I went through puberty with a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves in my lap, and the struggle for women’s equality was presented to me as something that had been won, at least in the United States. It didn’t occur to me until it was far too late how easily we could lose all the ground that we’ve gained. Piece by piece, the rights of women are being dismantled. I can’t be at every Planned Parenthood to escort people safely, and I can’t be loud enough to shout down legislation that tries to take our power away. Writing this book was the loudest I could scream my worst fears and hopefully help keep them from coming true.

Slate has called The Book of The Unnamed Midwife, the “science fiction analog to the Zika crisis.” What do you feel are the connections?

Zika is a crisis of reproduction freedom. It disproportionately affects women and makes pregnancy hazardous and morally fraught. I remember being terrified when El Salvador issued its advice concerning Zika: just don’t get pregnant. The government gave that advice to women who have almost no access to birth control, in a nation where abortion is illegal. Now, Zika is making inroads in Florida, where the state has actively worked to block funding for reproductive health care and comprehensive sex education. Zika will do the most damage in places where women are already disadvantaged and have no recourse. The plague in Midwife isn’t Zika, but it elicits the same kind of terror. It flourishes in those places where women already have little to no reproductive freedom and it brings terror into the delivery room. I never wanted to correctly predict a future as scary as this one.

What was the most interesting thing you learned while researching this book?

I spoke with a couple of midwives and all of them were happy to share with me the most horrific sleep-robbing stories they had of how bad births can go. More than one of them told me that they don’t share stories of birth-trauma with pregnant people, because we have a culture of terrifying them before labor. But they were happy to share with me, once I told them about the book. I learned that birth control expires a lot faster than I hoped it would. Weirdly, my research taught me a lot about civic engineering. I wanted to know what services would shut down first, and how. I wanted to know how fast cholera would run in the streets when municipal water cut out. I learned some things that might save my life in a disaster smaller than the one I wrote.

What do you want readers to take away from reading your book?

I want people who read Midwife to really grapple with what being a woman is like. I used the most extreme circumstances to tell this story, but many women deal with intimidation and assault under normal circumstances. I want the reader to see women as people, and to be disgusted by their relegation to chattel. I hope that readers see that although this book is grim and gutting, there’s hope in it. I’m a realist, but reality usually offers a sliver of hope.

What’s coming next?

The sequel to Midwife, The Book of Etta will be out soon! It’s about Etta, the young woman mentioned in the frame tale of Midwife, and it deals more with gender essentialism and the way things aren’t what we thought they would be when we first began them. I’ve also got a couple of other books in the works and I’m always writing short stories. What’s coming next is more barn-burning stories with kick-ass queer people in them, because that’s what I do.

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Thanks to the author and her publicists for the Author Q&A above.

Review | Nostalgia, M.G. Vassanji

28363849I really thought M.G. Vassanji’s Nostalgia would be right up my alley. Vassanji imagines a world where immortality is possible, and identities can be chosen as humans transfer their consciousness onto an entirely new body when they tire of their current one. Their memories are tucked away, providing the opportunity for a completely fresh start. The term “nostalgia” refers to what they call “Leaked Memory Syndrome,” when the memories belonging to one’s previous body “leak” into one’s current consciousness.

The concept is fantastic, a mix of science fiction and existentialism that tickled my geek bone. As well, I’ve long heard good things about Vassanji’s work, and thought this would be the perfect place to start. Unfortunately, this book just wasn’t for me. It’s a short read at barely over 250 pages, but it took me months to get through it, and I might have decided not to finish it if it hadn’t been such a short book and a review copy.

Nostalgia is the story of Frank Sina, a doctor who specializes in working with patients to generate their new identities. One of his patients, Presley, is suffering from nostalgia, odd flashes of memory of a lion. He escapes treatment and Frank is ordered to help authorities bring him back. Concurrent to this storyline is one about a less developed nation, where a reporter from a CNN-type media outlet is captured by rebels and presumed dead. The story explores questions of politics, inequality and immortality, and I’m sure it’ll be fascinating and thought-provoking for some readers. I just couldn’t get into it.

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