Review | Smoke, Catherine McKenzie

SmokeMcKenzieI’m usually a fan of Catherine McKenzie’s work, but try as I might, I just could not get into this book. The subject matter is a bit more sombre than what my previous McKenzie reads — a wildfire threatens a small community, and the story focuses on two women who live in that town. Elizabeth is an arson investigator who has been tasked with finding out how this fire started, and her ex-friend Mindy is drawn to help a man who has lost his home to the fire. The man also happens to be Elizabeth’s chief suspect, and the story presents a mixture of mystery as to how the fire started, and the various domestic dramas of Elizabeth and Mindy’s families and their community.

I love mysteries and I love small town dramas, but for some reason, this story and these characters failed to draw me in. The pace felt slow, with multiple subplots that I didn’t find confusing so much as uninteresting, and so were a struggle to keep track of. There were also a lot of characters introduced throughout the story, who weren’t really fleshed out enough to make me invested in what happened to them.

I enjoyed Arranged and Hiddenbut I struggled to get through Smoke. There were threads that intrigued me — Elizabeth’s attempt at a quiet family life, the teenage bullies, the small town corruption — but all just felt like disparate elements that ultimately fell flat.

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Thank you to the publisher for sending me an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Better than Before, Gretchen Rubin

betterthanbeforeApart from a brief stint of Dr. Phil fandom, I’m not a big fan of self-help books. They usually strike me as saccharinely optimistic at best, and rigidly authoritarian at worst. This may explain why I was both intrigued and slightly turned off by Gretchen Rubin’s Better than Before.

Rubin explores the idea of habit formation, and proposes that we all fall into one of Four Tendencies, depending on how we respond to obligation: Upholders stick to both external and internal obligations, Questioners do things only when it makes sense to them, Obligers need external accountability, and Rebels do what they feel like. According to Rubin, each of these tendencies can lead to success — the trick is to understand your own tendency and structure your habit formation along those lines.

I admit bristling at these classifications when I first read about them, mostly because I realized I was a textbook Obliger. In North American society, today, where individuality and self-governance are so highly prized, it seemed to be that Upholders were the most suited to success, and being an Obliger was the surest path to failure. Ironically, just a few pages after I felt this, Rubin writes that of the four Tendencies, Obligers are the most likely to dislike their own tendency.

Fortunately, as I read on, Rubin spoke at length about her sister — an Obliger — who is diabetic and who succeeded in getting her blood sugar down by changing her eating and exercise habits. For Rubin’s sister, it helped for her to tell co-workers that she no longer ate cupcakes, because they then helped hold her accountable to that resolution.

Rubin also gives various examples of friends and family members with other Tendencies, who successfully formed new habits based on her techniques. Honestly, I think her friends and family were a lot more polite than I would have been, if someone offered to make me a “guinea pig” in their habit formation theory. Rubin claims to understand that what works for her (an Upholder) will not work for most other people (most people are either Questioners or Obligers), but apart from a nominal split second of reluctance, she seems to have no problem dictating habits that her friends and family should form. Still, it is gratifying to know that even Rebels and Questioners can be successful at forming habits.

Also of interest are other classifications Rubin posits. One can be a Lark or an Owl (work best at daytime or at night), as well as an Abstainer or a Moderator (give up chocolate entirely or limit oneself to a square of chocolate a night). Again, alongside the Tendencies, these are useful in determining how to form new habits. For example, Rubin’s sister couldn’t commit to giving up all carbs to help her blood sugar, but she committed to abstaining completely from French fries, and that in itself has improved her health.

Rubin also calls us out on relying on loopholes — e.g. the “tomorrow” loophole, where we plan to begin a new habit “tomorrow” and in the meantime, splurge for today. Or the “false choice” loophole, where we set up a false dichotomy between two competing values that may not necessarily be in opposition (e.g. I can’t exercise because I work so hard).

I wish Rubin had spent more time talking about strategies for the other Tendencies, rather than relying on personal anecdotes sprinkled throughout. I also wish she had expanded the scope of the habits she chose to speak about — she mostly focused on habits she deemed important for herself, e.g. a low carb diet and exercising.

Finally and most problematically, I thought that at times, she framed concepts and redefined terms in a way to suit her arguments. For example, she says we can’t use rewards to help us with our habits because then we’re doing things for the reward and not viewing the habit itself as a reward — this strategy may work for Upholders, but likely not for everyone. Worse, she then says we can have treats, as long as they’re not tied to a particular habit or seen as a reward — this strikes me as just semantics, and is disingenuous. For example, when someone suggests that Rubin give up her diet soda habit to be healthier, Rubin emphatically declares that diet soda is her treat, and because she doesn’t smoke and barely drinks, she is entitled to it. I couldn’t care less if she drinks diet soda or not, but her tone struck me as defensive, and makes me wonder why her drinking diet soda as a treat is justified whereas her sister eating carbs beyond French fries is given the side eye.

Still, I thought the classification of Tendencies was useful, as were the details on loopholes and strategies we use that may hinder our habit formation. Rubin’s strategies for herself will definitely not work for me — she may thrill in structuring her days to such an extent, but I would chafe under such rigidity (e.g. scheduling a time each night for her and her husband to talk about their day) — but understanding that I’m an Obliger will definitely help me with my own habits. For example, it now makes sense why my whole strategy of going to the gym without a fixed schedule didn’t work for me — I enjoy the solitude of working out alone, but may need the accountability of a group class where people know me and would know if I skipped a class or two. Whatever your Tendency is, you can form a strategy for success, and Rubin’s book — particularly the first few chapters — can help you form that strategy.

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Thank you to Random House Canada for an advance reading copy of this book ine xc

Review | Six Impossible Things by Fiona Wood

23250087Dan has been having a hell of a summer. His dad came out as gay and walked out on his family. HIs mom is depressed and unable to get her wedding cake business off the ground. His family has lost their money and has to move into a fixer upper of a house. And he has an unrequited crush on the girl next door, Estelle. He’s come up with a list of goals for the year, six impossible things beginning with kissing Estelle and ending with being a better person than his father.

Six Impossible Things is a fun read. Dan is a witty, self-deprecating narrator, who starts out pretty bitter at the state of his life, yet really develops throughout the course of the story. There’s a scene near the end where his mom comments on how much he’s changed, and while he initially brushes it off with his sarcasm, it’s such an on point observation. It’s to the author’s credit than Dan’s growth is so subtly done that I almost didn’t realize it happening, and didn’t really appreciate how much he’s grown until now, when I’m writing this review and remembering how he was like at the beginning of the novel. Dan is far from a perfect boy — he’s pretty much a jerk to his mom in the beginning, and he straight-up spies on Estelle at some points — but he’s also sweet and lonely, and the kind of boy you want to hug and reassure that it will all work itself out somehow. His development feels real, and his challenges and emotions throughout – both positive and negative – feel real as well.

The book’s weakness is that, with the exception of Dan, the other characters are all pretty flat. Estelle is the standard quirky beautiful crush next door, Dan’s best friends are fairly typical snarky outsiders, and even the man who lives in Dan’s shed — a mysterious, cool older brother type — doesn’t end up being memorable. Dan’s mom is probably the most interesting secondary character, and it was amusing to see the her story arc progress with Dan being so completely clueless that he was blindsided by a revelation near the end. I especially loved the depiction of why her wedding cake business was doing so poorly — the reason is both hilarious and moving, and made me wish her story was more in the forefront.

Still, overall, this is a funny and endearing book. It’s easy to get caught up in Dan’s story, and it’s fun to see how the things that seem so impossible to him at the beginning of the tale turn out to be quite possible after all.

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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 | A Robot in the Garden, Deborah Install

23995237This book caught my attention at the Random House Canada Blogger Preview because it was marketed as “like if Up and Wall-E had a baby.” I love Up, and while I never watched Wall-E, the premise of the book sounded too intriguing to miss: 34 year old Ben Chambers discovers a robot in his garden and embarks on a journey around the world to find out where it came from and return it home.

A Robot in the Garden is an endearing, feel good story. Ben’s quest to find the robot’s home adds a sense of purpose to his generally aimless life, and teaches him about love. The robot Tang is indeed written to be loveable — a child-like total innocent who latches on to Ben and comes to rely on him for everything. I personally found Tang annoying after a while — his helplessness at times struck me as neediness and his wonder at the simplest things was at times cloying. So I wasn’t completely in love with Tang, as I expected I was meant to be, but to be fair, his behaviour is fairly realistic given the world the author built.

To be honest, I was somewhat disappointed that the story took place in a world where robots were everywhere, and that the problem with Tang is that he’s practically obsolete as a model. I suppose when I heard the promo pitch at the Blogger Preview, I’d imagined a world like ours now, and Tang as a rickety, patched up robot that was truly alone in the world because humanoid robots haven’t hit the mainstream yet. (I was about to say that they haven’t been invented yet, but then I remembered this pretty awesome sounding hotel in Japan.) Tang being an obsolete model in a world full of robots makes the story feel a bit more predictable, and the themes raised feel more standard.

That being said, Install’s story is as charming as you’d expect it to be. There’s a hilarious chapter about an android hotel, and a nice subplot about two secondary characters finding love. My favourite part was a scene near the end where Ben goes to a family affair and runs into his ex wife, and it is she who most clearly notices the change that Tang has brought about in him. I love that, because it encapsulates what the whole journey to find Tang’s home has been about: a man finding the humanity in a robot, and a robot helping bring out the humanity in a man.

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

Review | Arctic Summer, Damon Galgut

19348334I love E.M. Forster’s writing. I love the poetry of A Passage to India — the aphorism “only connect” and the final passage about the impossibility of interracial friendship and same-sex romance at that place and time going so deep as to appear to be ingrained in nature itself. I love the rawness of Maurice — the author’s own pain and longing practically pulsing off the page.

So with Arctic Summer, a novel about the years Forster spent writing Passage to India, Damon Galgut both piqued my interest and had a hell of a lot to live up to. In brief: he delivered. Arctic Summer is a beautifully crafted portrayal of Forster’s travels in India, and the relationships he formed. Galgut even echoes Forster’s style somewhat — the subtle suggestions of violent emotions, the attention to small details, and the meandering thoughtful interludes of reflection.

It’s difficult to pick particular passages that reminded me of Forster — it was more a niggling sensation throughout. Galgut did take some descriptions of India from Forster’s novels, so in the scene where Forster visits a set of caves, the experience could very much have led to what eventually became Passage. Still, Forster’s influence seems to permeate much of the book, enhancing the feeling that we really are entering the mind of the author. Take for example the following passage:

Whom could he tell about his love? He wrote about it to a handful of people at home, but he was aware of how absurd, how ridiculous, it sounded… It was more as if he’d fallen into love through Mohammed: into a small circular space in the very centre of his life, where almost nothing threw a shadow. [p. 221]

The first section frames a emotion within the context of socially acceptable self-consciousness, yet the dissembling into the purely metaphorical in the second section reveals how deep his emotions actually run. It’s this type of linguistic tension that reminds me of Forster, and this interplay between social norms and emotional truth being reflected in language.

The story itself also reflects the themes Forster explores in Passage and Maurice. We see Forster’s romances, and we see how his fascination with Indian culture clashes with the haughtiness of his fellow Englishmen and women. We see his various efforts to connect with others, as well as his attempts to capture the wonders of his experiences in words.

Galgut does a great job in taking us into Forster’s head, and in reflecting the thought processes that could have gone into writing Passage. He also makes tangible the relationships that Forster could only hint at in his own writing, as well as the tragedy that these relationships couldn’t work out. Arctic Summer renewed my love for Forster’s work, and I finished this novel with a desire to re-read Passage and Maurice, and to check out P.N. Furbank’s biography E.M. Forster: A Life, which Galgut mentions in his acknowledgements as a key source.

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

Review | When the Moon is Low, Nadia Hashimi

23447506Spanning several decades and two generations, Nadia Hashimi’s When the Moon is Low is about an Afghan family forced to flee Taliban rule. Hashimi’s writing is beautiful and evocative, and gently takes us along with her characters’ journey.

When the Moon is Low almost feels like two separate novels in one. We begin with Fereida’s story — a free-spirited schoolteacher, she struggles against the constraints of her society’s codes of propriety for women. I loved reading about her romantic story arc, how what she viewed as true love turned out to be less than idea,l and how she thought an arranged marriage was settling for less, only to find true love within one. The rise of the Taliban threatens her comfortable life, and Hashimi’s depiction of life under Taliban rule is horrific in its strong but underlying current of tension and fear. In a way, I almost wish the story could have ended with Fereida finding love — that segment alone was romantic and beautiful, and spoke to the struggle of being a woman who wanted more than conservative society permitted.

Fereida’s family’s escape to London forms the rest of the book, and perhaps fittingly, feels like a completely different book altogether. The undercurrent of tension has become all too real and all too immediate, and at each step of the journey is a very tangible threat of being sent back home. It is in the second half of the book that Hashimi switches narrative gears and begins to tell the story from the point of view of Fereida’s son Saleem. In a way, I understand the rationale behind this move — Saleem’s story of trying to earn enough money to finish their journey is far more action-packed and reveals far more of their environment than Fereida’s, who has to stay home to care for her other child.

Hashimi doesn’t shy away from violence. A particularly horrific scene at a wedding reveals how suddenly one’s cocoon of safety can be stripped away. Along with other, similar incidents, it reminds us of how each moment can be filled with fear, and how Fereida, Saleem and other characters can barely afford to ever let their guard down.

Saleem’s story is interesting in many ways — he meets other undocumented refugees in Europe and a woman who is helping them find permanent homes — but I wish his narrative hadn’t come at the expense of Fereida’s. As a woman in that particular place and time, Fereida has such a rich, complex role to play, and I would have wanted to hear more of what she had to say. So it was disappointing to see her gradually disappear into the background as Saleem’s story took over.

True to the spirit of her subject matter, Hashimi doesn’t offer any easy answers. The book’s ending is ambiguous enough, but more than that, we’ve spent enough time with these characters and the people around them to know that there is no such thing as a truly safe haven. It’s a sad story, beautifully written, and it will move you.

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

Review | Archie # 1, Mark Waid and Fiona Staples

image2I’m not usually a fan of reboots, but oh my god, Mark Waid and Fiona Staples are absolute geniuses for what they did with the Archie comics series! I bought a copy of Archie # 1 mostly out of curiosity — having grown up a fan of Archie comics in the 80s/90s, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about the company completely overhauling the characters that I’ve always loved. Archie comics have long been, for me, a space of comfort — Riverdale was home, and Archie and the gang my friends since elementary school. Waid and Staples’ genius lies in breathing new life into these beloved characters without completely overhauling them. The look has changed, the storyline has become less episodic, and the humour has become more subtle. Yet, at its very heart is the same Archie Andrews, Jughead Jones and Betty Cooper we’ve all grown up with. (Similar to Archie Comics’ initial launch in the 1940s, Veronica has yet to make an appearance in Riverdale.) The story is fairly straightforward — a power couple since kindergarten, Archie and Betty have broken up because of a mysterious “Lipstick Incident,” and while Reggie is interested in taking advantage, the other students desperately want to bring them back together. “What did they want?” Archie asks in one panel. “Stability,” Jughead replies. And indeed, the scheming that follows takes on add resonance — the other students’ interest in Archie and Betty’s relationship isn’t about meddling in gossip, nor alas is it about genuine concern over their welfare, but rather, it is about making things make sense again. As Kevin notes in one panel, if Archie and Betty can’t make it, what chance do the rest of them have? Throughout the story are mentions of the Lodge family moving into town, and for those of us who’ve grown up with the Archie-Betty-Veronica love triangle, we know that Riverdale High’s world is about to become even less stable than they realize. Waid and Staples have crafted a beautiful, heartfelt story, one that manages to speak to a whole new generation, while equally hearkening back to the nostalgia of the rest of us who’ve grown up with these characters. What I love most, however, is that their most radical update to the Archie universe isn’t the addition of new technology or pop culture references, but rather a deliberate, fantastic, much needed depiction of diversity in Riverdale High. In the Archie I remember, there were probably fewer than ten characters of colour in Riverdale High, and the only Asian I remember ever seeing is a Japanese student whose story was basically about her adjusting to American life and talking to readers about life in Japan. In Waid and Staples’ Archie, the very first page introduces two new characters of colour, Trevor and Raj, who are chatting with Dilton and are presumably going to be main characters. And best of all, there’s another new main character who looks Asian! What I especially love is that, like Trevor and Raj, her skin colour wasn’t a big deal at all — she was simply one of a group of three students actively scheming to restore the Archie and Betty coupledom. I’m not sure if her name is Maria or Sheila (she and another girl were referred to by name only once in passing), but just seeing her on the page made me squee.

So excited about this character!

So excited about this character!

About time, Archie Comics! Thank you! A note as well if you’re interested – there is a whole line up of variant covers for this issue, and they all look pretty amazing. I don’t know enough about comic book artists to really appreciate how big these names are, but I do know that I stood in front of the shelf at Silver Snail Toronto for probably a full fifteen minutes trying to decide which cover to get. (I ended up with two, just because.)

No regrets.

No regrets.