Review | Eligible, Curtis Sittenfield

25852870I admit that when it comes to Austen re-tellings, and particularly when it comes to Pride and Prejudice, I’m a bit wary. It’s been such a beloved classic that I feel like there are a million Pride and Prejudice re-tellings out there, not to mention all the book series where Elizabeth and Darcy are main characters solving mysteries or suchlike. But I really should have known, if anyone can pull off a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice that actually feels fresh and original and is a fantastic read, that writer would be Curtis Sittenfeld. I absolutely loved Eligible. I got completely engrossed in the story, and at each plot point, marvelled at the way that Sittenfeld managed to truly update the Bennets’ Edwardian concerns to contemporary counterparts. Oddly, it made me appreciate the original much more as well, clarifying at points the social commentary Austen was making about her own society.

I love the changes made to the characters, e.g. Liz Bennet as a feminist magazine writer living in New York whose practicality is manifested in her attempts to stabilize her family’s finances. I also love how while Austen’s original has become almost sacrosanct as a feminist icon, Sittenfeld’s Liz is called out for her self-righteousness. At several points, Liz’s sisters complain about her sudden interest in their lives, when she is based in New York and has no real understanding about their lives. I also love that Jane, despite being unmarried, is fully modern in her approach to satisfying her maternal instincts, and despite her love for Bingley, it is clear that she can live a full and happy life on her own. Kitty and Lydia aren’t just silly and flighty; they’re also CrossFit fiends who follow a paleo diet. Mrs Bennet isn’t just a social climber, she is also racist and homophobic, making Darcy’s sneers over the Bennet family somewhat more understandable. Even Mr Bennet, the sainted voice of reason in Austen’s original, is called out in Sittenfeld’s version for his coldness to his wife, his mismanagement of finances, and his Republican values. Darcy and Bingley are still super eligible, the former because he’s a surgeon and the latter because he literally starred in a Bachelor-type show called Eligible. If Austen’s characters were to live in the 21st century, one can almost imagine this is how they would be.

I’m not completely sure I’m comfortable with how race and gender identity are treated in the story, though Sittenfeld is very careful to voice disapproval (via Liz’s thoughts) of the offensive views (usually Mrs Bennet’s). The Bennets had a black housekeeper, and just the language of how nice it was that some family members went to her house struck me as rather outdated. A minor scandal is caused when a white woman dates a black man, and I wondered how such a thing could cause scandal in this day and age. Then at one point, a trans character is described as having a birth defect, like a cleft palate, and while this is explained as the only language that would make Mrs Bennet (a caricaturishly backwards woman) understand trans identity, it did jar me. Overall, I appreciate how delicately Sittenfeld managed these issues — Mrs Bennet after all is clearly wrong in her views, and characters like Liz view the situations not as sources of shame but rather in terms of how best to smooth over things for her mother. Still, some of how this was treated felt a bit off for a story set in contemporary times.

All that being said, I still really enjoyed this book. It’s certainly one of my favourite Austen adaptations by far, and one of the few I that I think actually succeed at updating Austen’s story for contemporary times. I love the romance between Liz and Darcy (hate sex!), and between Jane and Bingley, and I love the updates to the family dynamics among the Bennets. Highly recommended for anyone who wants a bit of a cheeky twist to a favourite Austen tale.


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


Review | Circling the Sun, Paula McLain

23995231Circling the Sun tells the wonderful, captivating story of Beryl Markham, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. McLain has created a highly memorable portrait of a woman far ahead of her time. Having grown up in Kenya, running free with her best friend Kibii, a Kip boy who eventually grows up into a warrior, Beryl would like nothing more than her independence, and the ability to run a farm and train horses all on her own.

However, due to the social constraints of her time, she needed to be married in order to be stable, and the book follows a string of failed relationships as she continues to look, not for love, but for freedom. The one man she does somewhat love is Denys Finch Hatton, who some readers may recognize as the character played by Robert Redford in the movie Out of Africa. Unfortunately, they were far too much alike — she recognized in him the same wanderlust and desire for freedom as she had in herself, and knew he would never let himself be tied down. Even when she meets her romantic rival Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep’s character in Out of Africa), Beryl knew that Karen’s desire for a stable relationship with Denys could never happen.

I love books about strong, independent woman, and Paula McLain has created a fantastic figure in Beryl Markham. Part of me wishes there had been more in the story about her aviation, but I loved learning all about her horse training, and her struggles to build a career even as various men around her (an ex-husband, a boss with a jealous wife) took credit for her work. I love her practical approach to relationships, and how, even with Denys, whom she did love, her own life and needs always came first, and I can only imagine how her life would have been if she’d lived at a different time in history.

The book is engrossing, but not a quick read. Rather, it’s a book to savour and to get lost in. I love McLain’s descriptions of Africa and of the Englishmen and women who made it their home, and I love the contrast with the lives in London. During one of Beryl’s relationships, her husband loved her slacks and casual air in Africa, but then asked her to don a more traditional dress and makeup to meet his mother in London, and Beryl called him out on it and asked if his mother wouldn’t accept her in slacks. I love how that just set up the two separate worlds that Beryl needed to straddle, and how she needed to put on a different face for each world. It’s clear which world she truly belongs to, yet she still needs to make nice with London society. There’s a great scene where she says she’s never been tempted by drugs, because she fears losing control, and yet later, while doing a silly party game with socialite friends, she realizes she may need the numbing effects of alcohol just to get through the night.

Overall, this is a good read about a fantastic woman. It made me want to watch Out of Africa (even though the movie was about Karen and Denys, rather than Beryl) and possibly read Beryl’s memoir to learn more about her.


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

Review | Jane Steele, Lyndsay Faye

25868918In Jane Steele, Lyndsay Faye re-imagines Jane Eyre as a sort of avenging angel / vigilante heroine figure. Jane Steele is a serial killer — “Reader, I murdered him.” rather than “Reader, I married him.” — but all her killings were either in self defence or in defence of a woman or child facing abuse. It’s an intriguing premise, and much darker than I’d anticipated — the very first few chapters recounted Jane’s sexual abuse at the hands of her cousin, and later on, the boarding school scenes depicted a sadistic headmaster who withheld food from young girls. I love the idea of someone who is powerless wresting control from those who seek to keep her under their thumb. Jane Eyre has long been considered a feminist figure, with her desire for independence over romance, yet with the proviso that the extent of her feminism was very much constrained by the time in which her story was written. So it makes perfect sense to me that a contemporary author’s take on Jane Eyre’s story would bring the feminism much further to the forefront.

Other contemporary touches are evident, even within the story’s historical setting. Contemporary readings of Bronte’s novel have also applied a postcolonial lens, critiquing the novel’s idealization of Englishness and presentation of Bertha Mason, a Creole woman, as a madwoman to be locked away, unimpeachably an “Other.” In the 1960s, Jean Rhys wrote an excellent rebuttal to Jane Eyre’s colonialism, giving Bertha Mason a voice in the novel Wide Sargasso SeaLyndsay Faye takes a somewhat different approach, framing the Rochester character himself as an Englishman who has adopted another culture, in this case Sikh. Rather than privileging the “British” ideal, Faye’s story highlights the horrors that colonialism has inflicted in Punjab, and even when the Rochester figure Mr Thornfield returns to England, he takes with him a young Sikh ward and some practices from Sikh culture.

I love how Faye approaches this tribute to Jane Eyre by acknowledging the aspects that were problematic about the original novel and addressing them head on. Unfortunately, I can’t say that I love the book itself. The beginning was intriguing, and held much promise, but when Jane returns to Highgate House and meets Mr Thornfield and his family, the pace slows quite a bit. The writing is strong throughout, so the book was never a struggle to get through; I just found myself feeling less interested in the second half and wondering when another killing would occur and break the monotony.


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

Review | Glory Over Everything, Kathleen Grissom

25813937Glory Over Everything is a highly readable story about James Burton, who has been passing as a wealthy white aristrocrat in Philadelphia, and who must now risk the life he’s built to return to the South and rescue a young servant boy named Pan. The action builds up slowly — Grissom spends the first half of the book building up James’ story, and it isn’t until the second half that James finally sets off to rescue Pan and the action picks up.

Still, James’ back story is highly fascinating. Having grown up white, he learns of his mixed race heritage only as a young teen, then almost immediately faces a potential life of slavery. Grissom barely glosses over this bit of his life here, and I can only imagine much of it is already discussed in the earlier book The Kitchen House, which I haven’t read yet. Instead, Grissom focuses on his life after escaping his childhood home, where he is rescued by a black free man Henry, who helps him find a job, a home and a future as a white man. James achieves wealth and social status, yet his hold over this life is clearly tenuous; even the loving, kindhearted woman who adopts him wouldn’t be able to accept him if she learned the truth. When James falls in love with a woman named Caroline, the relationship results in a pregnancy that jeopardizes the life he’s built, and he is torn between fear of telling her the truth and resignation that the truth may come out no matter what.

James’ story is certainly fascinating, yet even more compelling is the second half, where James finally goes South to rescue Pan. The reason behind Pan’s needing rescue in the first place struck me as rather silly, and to be honest, annoying, but admittedly in line with Pan’s character and his desire to impress James.

The truth stand-outs for me, however, are the other characters: Pan’s father Henry, overcoming his fear of being captured and sold back into slavery in order to save his son; and Sukey, a nurse and slave in the same household as the one Pan is sold into, who helps transport other slaves through the Underground Railroad, and who makes it her mission to rescue Pan. Both their stories are tragic and beautifully told, and I would personally have liked to hear more of them.

Glory Over Everything is thought-provoking, moving and thrilling all at various points in the story. I cheered for James to rescue Pan and get back home safely, just as I couldn’t forget Henry, Sukey and all other characters who faced even greater danger than James did. I love the idea of trying to escape your past and your heritage, especially with the realization that you can never truly do so. The novel ends with some tough decisions that James has to make, which will impact not just the future trajectory of his own life, but also the lives of people around him. His decision has some potentially interesting repercussions, and I wonder if Grissom plans to continue the series.

Blog Tour

Thanks to Simon and Schuster Canada for the invitation to join the blog tour for this book! Check out the rest of the stops below:



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

Review | A Girl’s Guide to Moving On, Debbie Macomber

25739091I really like the idea of a woman and her mother in law helping each other deal with cheating husbands and divorce, but I guess I was expecting a bit more out of A Girl’s Guide to Moving On. From the book description, I was looking forward to a lot of female bonding and self-empowerment, so I admit I was a bit disappointed that in both their cases, moving on turned out to mean finding a new man. A new romance is certainly a valid way to move on from a destructive relationship, and both romances were certainly entertaining to read about. It’s just that there’s this excellent line early in the book where Leanne notes that for a man to take the place of having no man, that man sure as hell better be worth it. Yet while there’s a glimpse in the beginning of the novel to the “Guide to Moving On” that both women penned, we barely get to know Step One (out of four) before the story shifts focus onto the developing romances. I don’t think I can even remember what the other three steps were.

That being said, the romances were entertaining to read, and as a romance fan, I really enjoyed the sweet, low-key chemistry between Nichole and the tow truck driver Rocco, who is the opposite of her ex-husband Jake in many ways. I love how Nichole bonds with Rocco’s teenage daughter, taking on a maternal role even when she and Rocco were still just friends, and how Rocco bonds with Nichole’s young son over a love for trucks. It’s a sweet story, and Rocco seems like a great guy.

I really wanted to like Leanne’s new man Nikolai, a student in her ESL class, but while he seems sweet (he bakes her bread every week), his jealousy and controlling nature also struck me the wrong way. For example, he freaks out when Leanne takes her ex-husband home from a doctor’s appointment and tidies up his house for him. I can understand Nikolai’s concern that Leanne’s ex is taking advantage of her, but I don’t like how he constrains her behaviour, and to my mind, he barely makes up for it near the end, when he does give her a bit more space. At one point, he even tells her to wait in the car while he talks to her husband for her, and while there are circumstances where I can see that making sense, in this case, it mostly felt like he didn’t trust her enough to let her speak for herself. The whole white knight thing appears to be something the book posits as romantic; even Rocco goes behind Nichole’s back to talk to her ex and resolve an issue, and while in both cases, things turned out well, it’s not really something that turns me on personally, or at least seems to me to be necessary within the context of this story.

Still, both romances were fun and sweet, and I enjoyed seeing Nichole and Leanne realize they were worth far more than their cheating exes made them feel. I especially love the family unit Nichole, Rocco and their kids created, and how well they all fit together. Leanne is a wonderful character, and while Nikolai isn’t personally my cup of tea, I’m glad she is able to find passion again with him, having been deprived of it and made to feel un-sexual for so long. I’m a huge fan of Debbie Macomber’s romances, and while I don’t think this will be one of my personal favourites, I think others may enjoy it, and I look forward to continuing to read more of her work.


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

Review | Shylock is My Name, Howard Jacobson

25614272In this modern update to Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Howard Jacobson finally gives Shylock his chance to vent. The character of Shylock has one of the most powerful, memorable monologues in all of Shakespeare’s plays — “Hath not a Jew eyes?” — yet he is ultimately silenced. He ends the play slinking offstage as the young Venetian protagonists celebrate their happily ever after. Merchant is considered a comedy, with Shylock presumably as the villain, insisting upon an unreasonable demand for a pound of Antonio’s flesh in payment of a debt. The play’s heroine Portia, disguised as a lawyer, makes an impassioned plea for mercy, which Shylock rejects in favour of justice, in this case a contractual agreement for Antonio’s flesh. So on one hand, Shylock does have a cruel streak; yet on the other hand, his being reviled by the other characters isn’t limited to his lack of compassion, but also about his being a Jew. In fact, his unwavering desire for Antonio’s flesh to settle debt recalls anti-Semitic stereotypes, and contemporary audiences are generally more sympathetic to Shylock’s character than the play’s heroes and heroines are.

So having a story where Shylock is finally given the hero’s role strikes me as a welcome form of literary justice, and I was thrilled to get a chance to hear his side. Jacobson somewhat mirrors the basic storyline of Merchant of Venice, but adds a meta layer, with Shylock as a character being in the real world and advising his real world contemporary counterpart Simon Strulovich. The young Venetians are re-imagined as vapid, rather self-centred hipsters, who respond to their privileged lives with ennui. In a sharp bit of satire, Plurabelle (modern Portia) and D’Anton (modern Antonio) meet in a sadness therapy group described as “like Alcoholics Anonymous but for sad rich people.”

Whereas Shakespeare’s play focuses on mercantilist stereotypes of Jews, Jacobson flips the perspective around, with characters like Plurabelle and D’Anton playing with people’s lives to alleviate their boredom and ignoring the very real problems Jews have faced over time. For example, upon hearing that a football player named Gratan, notorious for having given a Nazi salute on the field, is attracted to Jewish women, Plurabelle and D’Anton decide it would be entertaining to set him up with Strulovich’s daughter Beatrice. Jacobson’s portrayal of Plurabelle and D’Anton’s thoughtless manipulation of people’s emotions in pursuit of entertainment is akin to Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock’s disregard for Antonio’s health in pursuit of payment.


The infamous pound of flesh is also updated to mean foreskin, i.e. circumcision to signal conversion to the Jewish faith. Strulovich initially requests it of Gratan, as a condition of his continued relationship with Beatrice, and D’Anton offers to take on the debt himself if the athlete doesn’t deliver. This doesn’t quite make sense, but it’s also indicative of how little control Strulovich really has over the situation, a request that originally began as somewhat understandable gradually inflating to ridiculous proportions as fuelled by D’Anton’s penchant for the dramatic. More significantly however, by changing the particular piece of flesh in question, Jacobson brings a lot more of the anti-Semitic subtext in Merchant into the open. It’s not so much a physical wound that the young characters fear as it is that they would have to compromise their, for lack of a better term, non-Jewishness. It recalls a type of scare rhetoric that’s disturbingly familiar in contemporary conversations around multiculturalism and LGBTQ rights, and Jacobson’s story makes all too clear how often it is in these conversations that the loudest voices are from those who least understand what the context is.

I had high hopes for this book, but I wasn’t quite as blown away as I had hoped to be. Partly, it’s because my expectations were raised by the brilliance of Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Timethe first title in the Hogarth Shakespeare series to which Shylock belongs, and Shylock just didn’t quite measure up. To be fair, that may be just a result of my personal taste in writing — Jacobson’s prose was just a bit too wordy and pedantic at times to hook me in, particularly in the long, philosophical discussions between Shylock and Strulovich.

The other, more problematic part is that while Jacobson does an excellent job unpacking anti-Semitism and contemporary Jewish experience, I found the storylines around his female characters to be problematic. Strulovich’s relationship with his daughter Beatrice is particularly off-putting — he recalls her at thirteen as being “thirteen in fact, twenty-three in appearance. Luscious.” and that just completely skeeved me out. He is jealous of her boyfriends, in a way that seems more possessive than fatherly, and his description of her behaviour slides into outright slut-shaming at times. I actually cheered when she escaped him to be with Gratan, even though Gratan is a total jerk himself, then found myself seriously concerned when Beatrice later admits missing her father and wanting him to take her back. There’s a lot going on, including Beatrice’s struggle with accepting her Jewish heritage, but there’s a whole lot more that makes me uncomfortable. At one point, Beatrice compares her feelings towards her father to the affinity a captive may have for her captor, and the words strike home.

To a lesser extent, if Merchant did a disservice to Shylock, then Shylock does a disservice to Plurabelle as a reimagining of Portia. Shakespeare’s Portia was subversive, devising a game to exert power in an endeavour in which her father’s will essentially renders her powerless. In Jacobson’s book, the game becomes silly and senseless, and Plurabelle’s actions utterly aimless. Jacobson skewers Portia’s privilege without acknowledging her constraints, and while it’s possible I may not even have been really bothered by this as a stand-alone, when coupled with my feelings over Beatrice’s character, I can’t help wishing that female characters hadn’t been given such short shrift.

Otherwise, I think this is a fascinating, thought-provoking book, and certainly, it’s about time that Shylock got his say.

I’ll end with this video of David Suchet performing Shylock’s monologue, partly because it’s an excellent monologue but also partly because it’s David freaking Suchet and he’s awesome:

And just because both performances are so strong, check out Al Pacino:


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

Review | Anatomy of a Girl Gang, Ashley Little

18246699Anatomy of a Girl Gang is a raw, gritty novel, about a gang of teenage girls in Vancouver, told in alternating chapters from each of their perspectives. There is the leader Mac, her second in command Mercy, high school dropout Kayos who is also a single mom from a privileged family, Sly Girl who battles drug addiction, and Z, a graffiti artist. Little succeeds in giving each character a distinct voice and storyline that all somehow come together seamlessly to form a unified tale. Vancouver itself is a character as well, a somewhat maternal voice whose interjections remind us that, despite their bravado, these characters are still little more than children, and vulnerable on some very dangerous streets.

I was completely blown away by this novel, and by these girls’ stories. Mac’s long-term game has always been to save up enough money that they can live in comfort and potentially leave the gang life behind, and the stakes in the novel are raised when a crime places that goal in jeopardy. The blurb in my advance review copy calls the book “a narrative punch to the throat,” and I cannot agree more. It’s raw and powerful, and just absolutely brilliant.

Little pulls no punches — by allowing each girl the chance to tell her own slice of the story, and more importantly by allowing these slices to overlap in spots so that a single conversation can be remembered by two or more characters, the author presents us with a discordant, multi-layered chorus of voices that are never quite in sync but nevertheless create a sort of harmony. Despite the violence and dangers, Anatomy is at its heart about connection and friendship, and I love how the characters find a sense of belonging with each other, and how this connection manages to feel both unbreakable and tenuous at the same time. For example, Mac and Mercy’s best friendship defines the core of their gang, even when one of them inadvertently commits a crime that places the gang in jeopardy, yet the friendship is tested when Mac’s relationship with Z comes to light.

Also, within the current conversations around diversity in literature, Anatomy deserves a shout-out for the relationship between Mac and Z as well as main characters who are Punjabi (Mercy), First Nations (Sly Girl) and Asian (Z).

I cannot recommend this novel enough — it’s powerful and raw and just beautifully written. The range of distinct narrative voices is impressive, and success in pulling it off is a rare feat, so much kudos to Ashley Little for this.


Thanks to Arsenal Pulp Press for an advance reading copy of this in exchange for an honest review.