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.

+

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.

+

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.

+

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.

Review | The Rumor, Elin Hilderbrand

23341607Another summer, another Elin HIlderbrand novel. This author is a fantastic go-to for beach reads — her books are light-hearted, gossip-filled, scandal-tinged peeks into the lives of Nantucket residents. Nantucket itself is as much a character as the people in her stories, and to fantastic effect. Reading a Hilderbrand feels like joining her characters’ community yourself, an island respite from real life, where you can lose yourself in the various adventures of the characters she has created.

Her new book The Rumor delivers as expected, and is a delightful summer read. Nantucket writer Madeline King has to deliver a manuscript to her publisher ASAP, and she’s out of ideas. Enter her best friend Grace, who has something to confess about her ruggedly handsome landscape architect. Add to the mix Grace’s husband, whose money problems may have landed him in a situation way over his head, and a condo Madeline rents for writing inspiration and a “room of her own”. Mix in Grace and Madeline’s teenage children, who are dealing with sibling rivalries and love triangles. And of course, over it all is the Nantucket buzz, thrilled at all the juicy goings-on right in the neighbourhood.

Reading my past reviews of Hildebrand’s books, I realize my response to her work has been pretty mixed. I thought Summerland took itself too seriously, but Beautiful Day was rather touching. The Rumor falls somewhat in between. It doesn’t quite achieve the emotional depth of Beautiful Day, but it doesn’t try to either. Rather, it’s simply a fun, breezy read that becomes surprisingly action-packed towards the end.

+

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

Review | Killing Monica, Candace Bushnell

22675867The author of Sex and the City returns with a spoof of the lifestyle she’s built. Killing Monica is about best selling author Pandy Wallis who would like to write a serious historical novel inspired by her ancestor Lady Wallis, a great feminist. Unfortunately, she’s built her career on a character called Monica, who has spawned a line of novels, movies and merchandise, and her agent, publisher, friends and fans all couldn’t care less about Lady Wallis and instead demand more Monica. Worse, her ex-husband is after her money, and she’ll need to write another Monica novel to pay him off.

Bushnell explores a question that likely haunts many writers — at what point does the creator lose control over their work? As this novel shows and Bushnell can probably attest to herself, there are times when it’s the creation that takes over, and the writer becomes a mere cog in its machine.

A friend to whom I lent this book described it as “Sex and the City turns Harold Robbins,” and I couldn’t have said it better. Through flashbacks, we meet Pandy as a young woman, attempting to break into Hollywood life — there’s a great line about partying with “displaced New Yorkers,” including “a couple of disgruntled literary writers who were determined to show New York, mostly by drinking too much, that they didn’t give a shit about it.” (page 53) I enjoyed reading about her friendship with SondraBeth Schnowzer, who plays Monica onscreen. There’s a total party girl vibe but there are also hints of the jealousy and selfishness that will soon cause friction between them. As a boyfriend points out, Monica is all who SondraBeth is at this point in her career, yet SondraBeth can never truly be her, because the real Monica — Pandy — is still around. Bushnell steers clear of the obvious Single White Female plot directions, which is a bit of a shame, because the novel could have gone much darker, and also much more interesting, with this material.

We see Pandy’s rise in Hollywood, coupled with the diminishing of her personal life, where her marriage becomes a trap and her friendships become more shallow. A fire at her ancestral home gives Pandy a chance at a new life, yet comes too late in the plot to feel much more than a frantic denouement. Bushnell squeezes as much dialogue about women empowerment as she can in the last few chapters, where Pandy — and to an extent ShondaBeth — fight to reclaim their identities beyond the patriarchal Hollywood machine, and in a way, it’s a fitting third act in a story about both women essentially having their actions controlled by powerful men. But it also feels slapdash, and the execution — while never intended to be realistic — still feels too much a strain on credulity to make its impact.

The third act does provide a response to the question Bushnell raises, about the author’s control over their work, and it was really well done. In some of the book’s most powerful moments, we see how people respond to Pandy after the fire, and it’s a haunting, almost terrifying look at the cult of celebrity, and how much the real person actually matters.

A final note, and without giving anything away, I must say that I absolutely hate how Bushnell treats the big reveal about Pandy’s sister Hellenor. The impetus behind Monica’s creation, who later begged to have Monica killed, Hellenor is away in Amsterdam for most of the book. We aren’t told why she left, and while we receive hints that Pandy is no longer in contact with her, we don’t know why until the last few pages. Bushnell keeps it under wraps until the very end for effect, and the actual reveal plays no role beyond, possibly, surprise expected on the part of the reader. Given the general suppression of these kinds of stories, and the lack of representation of this community, I hate that this reveal was played as a cheap trick. It feels disrespectful, and equally important, it feels like a wasted opportunity, considering that Hellenor’s story could have tied in thematically with other points in the plot.

Otherwise, it’s an entertaining story, and if it turns into a TV show, I’ll have the utmost sympathy for any actress who has to wear the gorgeous, but torturous, Monica shoes.

+

Thanks to Hachette Book Group for an advanced reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | China Rich Girlfriend, Kevin Kwan

22674105There’s rich, then there’s crazy rich. And then there’s China rich. As Eleanor Young explains to her son Nick, “Aiyah, these people aren’t just everyday rich with a few hundred million. They are China rich! We’re talking billions and billions.” And in this spectacular sequel to Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan takes us into an even more deliciously decadent, ostentatiously opulent world.

I absolutely adored Crazy Rich Asiansso when I saw that a few ARCs of the sequel were available at the Random House Canada Spring Blogger Preview, I immediately dove for a copy like Carrie Bradshaw at a Manolo Blahnik sample sale. I then pushed the rest of my reading pile off to the side and settled in for an escape into the glitzy glamour of the 0.0001%.

China Rich Girlfriend brings back a lot of the beloved characters from the previous book. Rachel Chu and Nick Young are all set to marry. Singapore’s It Girl Astrid Leong is slowly discovering that her husband’s recent financial success has gone to his head. Former soap opera star Kitty Pong is unable to climb to the upper echelons of Hong Kong society, despite her billionaire husband and efforts to fit in. We also meet new characters, billionaire bad boy Carlton Bao, his girlfriend celebrity fashion blogger Colette Bing, and the catalyst that sets this novel’s plot in motion: Rachel Chu’s birth father.

China Rich Girlfriend has a more soap operatic feel than Crazy Rich Asians. While the first book focused on Rachel’s relationship with Nick and her introduction to his world, their story almost takes a back seat in this sequel. Instead we get drawn into an almost dizzying array of subplots, and I strongly suggest reading/re-reading Crazy Rich Asians before this book. Getting acquainted/re-acquainted with the large cast of characters felt confusing at first, but once you’re settled in, it’s an exhilarating ride.

My favourite plot thread by far is that of Astrid and her friendship with Charlie Wu, who I see from my review of Crazy Rich Asians also stole the show for me in that book. He still holds a torch for her, yet manages to maintain a respectful distance and provide emotional support while she struggles with her husband’s personality shift. The affection between them is beautiful, and after some particularly jerky behaviour by Astrid’s husband, I was on Team Charlie all the way.

As with Crazy Rich Asians, China Rich Girlfriend skewers the materialism of the super upper class. The sequel has a bit less affection and therefore a bit less bite than the original, but is just as much a pleasure to read. A Paris shopping spree scene made me yearn so badly for a shopping trip myself, and only -40 degree weather (I’m writing this on a February day in Toronto) saved me and my credit card from doing anything we regret. This scene of course was closely followed by a luxurious spa scene, which again made me long for all the treatments the characters describe. Despite his satirical treatment of the characters’ behaviour, Kevin Kwan does for high end shopping what Devil Wears Prada does for fashion, and it’s hard to read all those brand names and celebrity mentions without wishing you could experience such a lifestyle, even for just a day. Reading Kwan’s fiction allows us to live vicariously through these characters, lampooning their excess while imagining ourselves in their Louboutin heels (presented personally by their dear friend Christian, of course). That being said, the truth behind a much lauded white linen dress gives hope to us all and makes for one of the funniest moments in the book.

The food is just as gloriously described here as in the first book, and I’m not ashamed to say I ordered Chinese takeout for dinner after finishing the book. Sweet and sour pork may not quite compare to the delicacies described in these pages, but again, a fantastic scene featuring ramen in Paris shows us that at times, the rich really aren’t so different from you and me.

I’m so glad Kwan decided to write a sequel to Crazy Rich Asians. This is such a fantastic world to visit, and his writing is just hilarious. Reading it feels like watching a particularly glittery soap opera, where the jewels are ten times as large and the outfits a thousand times more expensive. Look beyond the glitz and glamour though, and at its heart, this novel is about love and family. How does a young woman deal with finding her birth father? How does a sudden increase in income change a man? And how can a privileged young man deal with having caused a terrible tragedy? Kwan refrains from delving too deep into the sad aspects of the plot, but they add some measure of reality to the story, and remind us of the human beings behind the dollar signs.

+

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