Review | When Everything Feels like the Movies, Raziel Reid

24043806When Everything Feels like the Movies is an unbelievably raw, powerful book. Reading this book is a visceral experience, and I almost didn’t write this review because there is no way I can express the power of Raziel Reid’s writing. He plunges us deep into the mind and heart of his narrator Jude, and creates such a rich, textured voice for his character that Jude will stay with you long after you turn the last page.

Jude is a hilarious narrator whose humour belies the depth of his experiences and pain. A young teen bullied for being gay, Jude copes by imagining himself a movie star. Boys chase him and call him Judy because they are rabid fans. Graffiti about him on bathroom doors are notes from secret admirers. Classmates stare at his outfits and made-up face because the school hallways are actually red carpet premieres and he’s the star. It’s a comforting fiction that crumbles with the first punch, even as he desperately attempts to cling to it. In a particularly heart-wrenching moment, he scrambles to his feet and races away from a group of bullies, describing all the while how he is really acting out a lush, beautiful scene from a movie.

The reason this book is so powerful is the language. Take this passage about bathroom graffiti for example:

They made portraits of me, too. They were my graffiti tabloids. I was totally famous. I’d imagine that the drawing in the handicap stall of my alleged crotch with “Hermafrodite Jude/Judy” scribbled next to it was the cover of the National Enquirer. Misspelled headline included. I was addicted to them. I’d look all over the bathroom and on all the walls in the hallway, and if there wasn’t one waiting for me on my locker for Jim to paint over at the end of the day, I was crushed. I wanted them to hate me; hate was as close to love as I thought I’d ever be. [p. 18]

Passages like that just blow me away. I mean, wow. The studied casualness of stating a desire for this graffiti, contrasted with the subtle dig at the spelling error, and then wrapped up at the end with an almost off-hand remark. Reid manages to pack more sincerity in that final sentence than in the rest of the paragraph, yet the emotion in that last line can be felt throughout, even as Jude pretends otherwise. Bravo, Raziel Reid, is all I can say.

Then Jude falls in love, with a popular boy who happens to be straight. If you know the author’s inspiration for this story, then you already know how that turns out. If you don’t, then I urge you to avoid spoilers at all costs. The ending seemed sudden to me and I thought it came out of nowhere. But I can imagine that’s how it would have seemed in real life as well, especially as Reid keeps us firmly locked within Jude’s perspective.

The controversy around the content of this book has brought it to the attention of many more readers, but it has also almost eclipsed discussion about the book itself, which I think is a shame. Read it to take a stand against censorship, if you like, but also read it just because it’s a very, very good book. Jude is a star, and his story will pull you right in and never let you go.

Review | Something Wiki, Suzanne Sutherland

20860645Something Wiki is about a shy twelve year old named Jo, who has three brainy friends and edits Wikipedia for fun. When two of her friends suddenly decide they’re too cool for her, Jo has to deal with a situation unfortunately all too familiar with many young girls. Add to the mix a twenty-four year old brother moving back home with his pregnant girlfriend, and Jo’s dealing with quite a bit to handle.

Sutherland does a great job of capturing a young girl’s voice, and her writing took me right back to my days as a tween. I remember being like Jo — Wikipedia wasn’t around back then so I had to scribble my feelings in an actual paper journal, but I can certainly relate to her worries about bad hair cuts, monstrous zits, and not quite fitting in with friends who are finding new interests. Kudos to Sutherland for giving Jo a real acne problem, rather than the usual trope in movies of otherwise beautiful girls freaking out over a single pimple. The story feels real, and Jo is a sharp, witty narrator. Her sardonic asides give way to real pain though, and it’s almost painful to read about how cruel young girls can be.

I lent my copy to my sister after reading, and about halfway through, she asked me if Chloe (Jo’s best-friend-turned-kinda-mean-girl) ever gets her comeuppance. Unfortunately, Sutherland ends the story before the girls enter high school, which means we never get to see if Chloe gets major zits before the prom or ends up unable to land her dream job after university. There is some closure, but as in real life, things aren’t completely wrapped up in a tidy little package. The book does give a glimpse of hope, however — J, the girlfriend of Jo’s brother, is the cool older sister type who wears awesome outfits and is beyond caring what others think of her. Attitude-wise, she’s who Jo can grow up to become, and both provides emotional support and a reminder that things do get better.

Despite being in the title, the Wikipedia angle almost seems unnecessary. Perhaps it will resonate on a different level with contemporary tweens, but it  mostly just reminds me of those Baby-sitter Club notebook chapter introductions.

Something Wiki is fantastic realistic YA. It’s much tighter — plot-wise and style-wise — than Sutherland’s first novel, and is sure to resonate with many young girls and women who remember all too well the pains of growing up.

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

Review | Black Dog Summer, Miranda Sherry

23574104When Sally is brutally murdered on her farming commune in South Africa, her spirit remains tethered to this world and the people she left behind. Similar to The Lovely Bones, Miranda Sherry’s debut novel Black Dog Summer is about a family dealing with grief and, more significantly, with all the issues left unresolved before death. Sally watches as her teenage daughter Gigi falls into a deep depression alleviated only by drugs. Her estranged sister Adele, her brother-in-law and unrequited love Liam, and their daughter Bryony are all struggling to come to terms with Sally’s death, and with the addition of a silent, troubled teen into their home.

Sherry’s writing is beautiful, and I love how she describes her characters’ lives as threads of stories that Sally must follow before she can move on. Sherry also weaves in a bit of a supernatural feel — the darkness Bryony senses in the aftermath of her aunt’s murder takes the form of a black dog out to harm her and her cousin. Bryony’s next door neighbour Lesedi is a reluctant sangoma, someone in touch with the spiritual realm and can communicate with the dead, and anchors the story’s shifting between both worlds.

My favourite passage in the novel comes early on, almost immediately after Sally is killed. She hears a noise, a “whispering, humming, singing, screaming awfulness.” She soon realizes that

The noise comes from Africa’s stories being told. Millions upon millions of them, some told in descending liquid notes like the call of the Burchells’ coucal before the rain, and some like the dull roar of Johannesburg traffic. Some of these stories are ancient and wear fossilized coats of red dust, and others are so fresh that they gleam with umbilical wetness…

[My family’s story is] just one story amongst millions, and yet it has become so loud now that it drowns out the others. It is howling at me, raging, demanding my attention. I look closer to find that this small, bright thread of story weaves out from the moment of my passing and seems to tether me to this place. Perhaps this is why I have not left yet. Perhaps I have no choice but to follow the story to its end.

Isn’t that beautiful? From that passage on, like Sally, I too felt compelled to follow this story to its end.

I also really like how Sherry connects the spirit world with the elemental one. Sally feels her being a spirit most keenly when Lesedi looks at her, and ironically, she is both most disconnected from the physical world and intimately connected to its elements. She has become an Ancestor, one with the millions upon millions of stories of the past and connected as well somehow to the potential of the future. What a beautiful way to think of the afterlife!

Black Dog Summer is a very emotional book. Much of the story within the physical world is told through Bryony’s point of view, and as a tween, she is barely able to cope with what has happened to her aunt. She looks up the term “massacre” in the dictionary, and repeats this definition several times. And indeed, when faced with something as incomprehensible as murder (not just murder, but mass murder), when having to deal with the overwhelming grief of a cousin you barely know who is now your roommate, when unable to comprehend the rising tensions between your parents, how can anyone cope?

This is a beautiful, heartbreaking, page turner of a book. Like Sally, we as readers are invested in the story while necessarily being detached from it. And like Sally, all we can do is hope it all works out for this family.

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

Please note that the passage quoted above is from the ARC, and may be edited prior to publication.

Review | The Damned, Andrew Pyper

damned-9781476755144_lgAndrew Pyper does it again with The Damned. Creepy, atmospheric and with more than a touch of existential tragedy, the book is signature Pyper. I raced through the book in a couple of days, and ended up not quite knowing how to feel at the end.

“I have a talent for dying,” protagonist Danny Orchard admits. “It’s the one thing it seems I can do, not just once like everyone but over again.” Danny is a middle aged man who had narrowly escaped death at 16, in a fire that ended up killing his beautiful, psychotic twin sister Ashleigh. Now a bestselling author who’d penned an account of his experience in the “After” (Danny’s term for the afterlife), Danny has lived his entire life haunted by Ashleigh’s spirit, who appears determined to take Danny back into the After with her.

Just like my favourite Pyper novel The GuardiansThe Damned focuses on the intensely personal, small scale, individual type of horror. Danny’s attempts at a normal life, foiled by his sister’s spectre appearing at inopportune moments illustrate a very personal kind of hell on earth. Pyper includes other characters who are undergoing similar experiences with their own departed unloved, and these incidents are both chilling and tragic. On one hand, The Damned is a freaky horror story (a scene with a washing machine almost gave me nightmares); on the other hand, it’s also a potent metaphor for how we can never really escape the people who have touched our lives. An abusive father may die, but his daughters will never completely escape the effects of his abuse. Ghosts, whether corporeal or psychological, are real. Even Pyper’s version of the After is based on reality — a bit of earthly life stretched out to eternity. This grounds the unknown of death in something tangible, and makes the idea of hell even more within our grasp.

What elevates this straightforward horror story into something much more troubling is that Pyper resists comfortable, easy characterizations. For example, it would be easy to paint Ashleigh as purely evil. Just like the abusive father who haunted another character, Ashleigh’s cruelty lives on and impacts upon Danny’s life for decades afterwards. However, Ashleigh’s explanation of her nature, rooted in a near death experience the twins had in their mother’s womb, raises questions about good and evil, and the justice of her damnation. Questions that go far beyond a novel, and possibly into our own concept of heaven and hell, right and wrong.

The Damned is a fairly quick read, mostly because you just keep wanting to find out what happens next. But much like Pyper’s ghosts, the disquieting questions his novel raises linger on long after you turn the last page.

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

Review | The King of Shanghai (Ava Lee # 7: The Triad Years), Ian Hamilton

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t read Two Sisters of Borneo (Ava Lee # 6), this review includes a major spoiler in the first paragraph about that book and the Ava Lee series in general.

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King of Shanghai begins about a month after Uncle’s death in Two Sisters of Borneo. Ava is just coming out of grieving and ready to begin a new life as a partner in the Three Sisters investment business she runs with friends May and Amanda. She still feels the loss of Uncle’s mentorship, but is somewhat looking forward to a quieter life, with a steady income and without the violence that resulted from her previous work.

Unfortunately for Ava, her old life seems determined to catch up to her. Uncle’s friend and mentee Xu, the head of the Triad in Shanghai, is seeking the chairmanship of all Triad Societies, and he wants to recruit Ava as his adviser. The rest of the story unfolds in classic Ava Lee fashion — other Triad bosses don’t get along with Xu, Ava gets sucked into their conflict, various characters get kidnapped/beaten up/shot.

King of Shanghai does focus a bit more on Ava’s strategic thinking rather than her martial arts prowess, which I liked. She ends up having to strategize about the Triad, and that’s a scale beyond what she’s had to deal with in the past, I think. That being said, one of my concerns with this series is that Ava’s always been more than capable so I haven’t really seen much character growth in that regard over the series. Because she has been practically superhuman all along, there was never any doubt that she could come up with a good strategy, nor that she could strong-arm negotiations in her favour. More significantly, there isn’t much difference between the Ava working for Uncle and the Ava left without a mentor. She does mourn Uncle’s death, and there’s a great scene where she dreams about him, but in terms of character development, I didn’t really feel how Uncle’s death changed her in any way.

The appeal of any mystery and thriller series is familiarity — there’s a set structure and there’s a certain set of expectations of how the main character would react in a given situation. So in a way, I can’t fault Ian Hamilton for giving us the Ava Lee story we’ve come to expect. I think however that the story arc about Uncle’s health in previous books raised the emotional stakes in such a way that enhanced the series, and that is missing in this book. Ava’s concern over Uncle’s declining health added heart to the series and depth to Ava’s character, and perhaps it is in contrast to that that the language in this book feels oddly detached. Even moments of emotion, such as Ava’s emailing “I love you” to her girlfriend felt clinical in execution, added to the story just to remind us that Ava has a girlfriend before then going on to the business at hand.

There is also a subplot about PO, a fashion line the Three Sisters consider investing in. To be honest, I enjoyed that subplot more than the Triad part, mostly because I like fashion, but as the Triad story took off, this story was pushed to the sidelines, and it made me wonder why we spent almost half the book building up this storyline.

King of Shanghai is a solid addition to the Ava Lee series. If you enjoyed the earlier books, this has many of the elements that make the other books great, and Ava is as powerful and brilliant as ever.

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

Review | (You) Set Me on Fire, Mariko Tamaki

20622284Remember being seventeen and in love with someone you knew was bad for you? In (You) Set Me on Fire, when seventeen year old Allison Lee enters college, she has been in love once (disastrously), burned twice (literally), and appears headed for yet another romantic disaster. She finds herself drawn to beautiful classmate Shar, who soon becomes the centre of Allison’s universe.

As an adult, I immediately found Shar pretentious (the “too cool” outsider who looks down upon other students), and later emotionally manipulative and utterly messed up. I honestly didn’t understand the appeal, when there were perfectly nice classmates like former cheerleader Carly who were inviting Allison to join them in various activities. However, thinking back to myself as a teenager, I have to admit Allison’s decisions may not have been so far-fetched as I’d like to think.

Tamaki is fantastic at capturing the teenage voice. Allison sounds like a teenager without the usual Clueless/Valley girl trappings of authors trying too hard to sound young. Allison sounds smart, and more than that, funny. Here is a story about a girl heading into a toxic relationship, who’s had some problems with fire, and who feels she doesn’t quite fit in with others her age — and it’s funny! This is not to diminish everything Allison is going through — at times, her encounters with Shar and her flashbacks to her previous romantic disaster (high school classmate Anne), are almost painful to read because the emotions are so raw. But the narrative as a whole is laced with sardonic humour, and that, combined with an ever-present undercurrent of raw vulnerability, makes Allison’s story so powerful.

Take a look at this passage for example, shortly after Allison enters college and realizes her classmates there know nothing about her or her past:

So for a brief moment in time I was in the freshman threshold of opportunity: the people around me knew only what I’d told them about myself, Nothing more. They’d had almost no time to formulate an opinion for themselves and no one was around to inform them of anything different from what I said or what I did. If I smiled and giggled at their jokes, I could be a happy-go-lucky person. If I slept with the first boy I laid eyes on, I could be a slut. I could even get in a fight and be a loose cannon or a bully.

The world was my oyster. [p. 38]

I remember that moment of opportunity, that moment when I could completely reinvent myself, redefine who I’ve become. It happens every now and then, with a new school or a new job or even a new city. It’s exhilarating, and a great part of figuring out who you want to become. That moment of hope, so early in Allison’s story, is particularly poignant as we read on, and realize she’s falling into an old pattern, and that this too is a familiar experience for anyone trying to reinvent themselves.

The brilliance of Tamaki’s writing is evident even in the title, which is possibly one of my favourite book titles ever. The parenthesis create a dual layer of meaning, with both layers somewhat at odds with each other. The declarative, almost accusatory romantic statement “You set me on fire” is in tension with the directive “Set me on fire,” which could be either a demand or a plea. This subtlety is carried through with her use of fire as a metaphor, a somewhat overused symbol for passion, yet in Tamaki’s hands it feels fresh. From Allison’s scar to escalating incidents with fire in the story to the striking allusions to history and mythology, fire is woven through the narrative in a masterful way that is overt without, to my mind, ever being over the top.

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I made a pledge in 2015 to read books by Asian American women writers, based on a list compiled by Celeste Ng. Mariko Tamaki isn’t on the list, but this book happened to catch my eye in a shop, and I’m glad it did. If you happen to be joining me on this pledge, I highly recommend you add this to your list as well.

50 Book Pledge 2015 | Asian American Women Writers

I’ve always been a fan of Harper Collins Canada’s 50 Book Pledge, but as I explain in this 2012 blog post, I love it more for its celebration of reading and for the community of readers that it builds rather than for the motivation to read 50 books in a year. Part of that, to be honest, is because I’m such a book nerd that I probably read 50 books or more in a year anyway, and aiming towards a particular higher number like 100 or 150 books feels a bit arbitrary.

Then I read Glenn Sumi’s article on the 50 Book Pledge, and how it inspired him to go from  five or six books a year to 55 in 2014. The article is titled “My year of magical reading,” and it reminded me of how inspiring — how magical — a reading resolution can be.

And that’s when I decided to make my own pledge this year. I’d recently read an excellent article by author Celeste Ng, about the lack of awareness around female Asian American writers. Ng talks about the feedback she’s received that there aren’t enough female Asian American writers around to invite to speak at conferences and panels, and then sets about proving this assumption wrong. She takes to Twitter to invite female Asian American writers to raise their hand and be counted, so to speak, and then ends her article with a fairly impressive, though by no means comprehensive, list of these writers.

So here’s my 50 Book Pledge of 2015: I will read books by writers on that list, as well as by other female Asian American writers who I encounter that may not be on that list. I cannot promise to read 50 books by Asian American women writers, because there are a lot of other books I want to read that don’t fit in this category, but I do pledge to do at least one a month.

Here’s the reason for the pledge: I agree with Celeste Ng that there isn’t enough awareness of Asian American writers, and particularly female ones. I find that despite efforts to the contrary, much still has to be done to achieve gender equality in terms of book review space in prominent publications. I also find that ideas of “Asian American” literature are generally limited to East Asian writers, and I’m thrilled to find that Ng’s list includes Southeast Asian (including a few Filipinos!) and South Asian writers. As a female Filipino-Canadian, all of this matters to me. And this pledge is my way of taking a stand and saying Asian American voices matter, female voices matter, and the publishing industry needs to pay more attention.

In this, I am also somewhat inspired by others on Twitter who have mentioned pledging to read more diverse books this year, or more books by women writers. I love this idea of reading for a cause, of an activity for pleasure also being an instrument for change. I realize this may sound somewhat pretentious — I am only one reader, who will likely borrow most of her books this year from the library. But then I think, if many readers do something similar, then perhaps a movement can happen. And perhaps a difference will be made.

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If you want to join me in this pledge, here again is the link to Celeste Ng’s article with the list of writers to check out. I also created a shelf on Goodreads with some titles from the authors on that list that I personally am interested in reading.