Review | The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, Padma Viswanathan

18142312How does one deal with the loss of loved ones to a bomb on a plane? How does one cope when, twenty years after the attack, suspects are finally brought to trial for the crime? Psychologist Ashwin Rao, who lost his sister, niece and nephew in a fatal bombing of an Air India flight from Vancouver, deals with his grief by writing a book on the families of other victims on that flight. He becomes particularly drawn into the story of one Canadian family, whose members have dealt with their grief in very different ways.

In The Ever After of Ashwin RaoPadma Viswanathan explores various ways that people respond to loss. Through Rao’s eyes, we see the unique difficulties of facing such a violent, unexpected death for a loved one — in one particularly powerful scene, two men from the same family search through images of bodies salvaged from the crash, looking for anyone from their family. One of them looks through the photographs methodically, column by column and row by row lest he miss faces he recognizes. The other lets his eyes dart around, barely registering on one photo before moving to another spot, haphazardly chosen. The reason, the first man realizes and relates to Rao, is that the second man wants to register only his own family members; he doesn’t want the burden of anyone else’s grief.

Along with grief is an undercurrent of anger throughout the story. Rao refers to a book on the bombing written by Bharati Mukherjee and Clark Blaise, and the inadequacies of the text to properly represent the tragedy. For example, a passage in the book refers to the children on the flight, how well they and their families have assimilated into Canadian life, and how tragic their deaths were. Rao points out, and quite rightly, that the children’s “Canadian” traits were  and should be completely irrelevant — the tragedy of their deaths is simply because they died. Tied in to this is Rao’s anger at the Canadian government’s handling of the bomb. Other than their apparent incompetence in solving the crime, Rao compares the bombing to 9/11, and wonders why America took 9/11 personally whereas Canada seemed to consider the bombing an Indian tragedy, rather than a Canadian one, despite the number of Canadians on board.

The root of this anger is political, and it turns out that Rao was in India when Indira Gandhi is assassinated in 1984 and anti-Sikh sentiment turns violent. The horror of the riots is heightened by its contrast with the silly, manufactured horror of a haunted house Rao has set up for the neighbourhood children to introduce them to Halloween. Viswanathan is at her best when contrasting innocence with horror, and continues in this vein when dealing with victims’ stories, particularly families’ memories of the children on the flight. Later, some of the families blame Sikhs for the Air India bombing, echoing the violence back in India.

The thrust of the book is more personal than political however, and soon Rao sublimates his own grief and anger and focuses on the subjects of his book. While these stories are interesting in their own right — the family patriarch for example turns to religion, his daughter is stuck in a sexless marriage, and so on — the story to me loses some of the momentum that propelled the beginning so well. The writing is still solid throughout, as the author switches between perspectives, but the fire has been dampened somewhat, and the story never quite reaches its peak.

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

Review | The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches (Flavia de Luce #6), Alan Bradley

17834904The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches takes the Flavia de Luce series in a completely different direction, and while the writing is still great and the mystery enjoyable, I’m not quite sure how I feel about this shift in the series.

The book begins with the return of Flavia’s long-lost mother Harriet, and what that means for the de Luce family. Waiting on the platform for her mother’s train, Flavia receives a hurried, whispered message from a mysterious man, who shortly after gets killed on the train tracks. Winston Churchill makes a cameo, there is a mysterious reference to pheasants, and Flavia returns to Buckshaw with her family. All of this happens in the first chapter of the grandest Flavia de Luce adventure yet.

Previous Flavia mysteries have had a cozy feel, Nancy Drew meets Miss Marple in a small village setting. There have always been hints in the background at a larger mystery involving the de Luce family (much of which I admit I chalked up to Flavia’s rich imagination) and Vaulted Arches finally tackles this mystery head on. Bradley takes Flavia de Luce into Maisie Dobbs territory. There is espionage, matters of national importance, secret codes, and Flavia is caught up right in the thick of it. We still get the classic Flavia elements — bickering older sisters, Dogger, Buckshaw — but the stakes are higher than ever before.

Vaulted Arches also introduces a more mature Flavia. Much more thoughtful than in previous instalments, Flavia appears very conscious of being twelve and on the verge of growing up. She still has her delightfully childish moments, most often when dealing with unlikeable cousin and new character Undine, but overall, this is Flavia growing up, and kudos to Bradley for keeping it real and allowing us to see the character develop. We also get to see a classic Flavia de Luce science experiment, Flavia’s darkest and most disturbing attempt in the whole series, yet also the most fraught with emotional heft. Also a nice counterpoint to Flavia’s growing up, the experiment reveals an almost desperate need to cling to childlike belief, because the potential payoff is so very high.

It’s difficult to keep such a long running series fresh, particularly when there is such a significant thread of a backstory tying everything together and preventing the series from being purely episodic. So in a way, I’m glad Bradley took the series in this direction — it’s a natural progression for Flavia as a sleuth and a way to take the mysteries to another level. Future Flavia mysteries will likely continue on in this vein, and the very next one (minor spoiler alert) will be set away from Buckshaw, a clear signal that this is a whole new type of Flavia de Luce mystery. Personally though, I’ll miss the cozy, small scale feel of the first few mysteries. I’ll certainly keep following the Flavia mysteries, and am excited to see how Bradley takes this series forward, yet I’ll always have a special place on my shelf for the beginning of the series, and the irrepressible turn of the century Nancy Drew racing around the dark passages of her family estate.

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

Review | One More Thing, B.J. Novak

18007533B.J. Novak’s short story collection One More Thing is uneven in quality. The stories are comedic, not necessarily all laugh out loud funny, but more the kind of comedy where you end up with a knowing, somewhat bemused, smile at the end. The punchlines in these stories are shared knowledge, insight from an experience that seems fantastical at first, yet  is revealed to be familiar by the punchline. I like B.J. Novak in The Office, and from his bio, I know that he is a writer as well as an actor, so this isn’t just one of those ghost-written Hollywood celebrity titles. I love the cover of the book, the casual, confidential tone of the title echoed in the scribbled intimacy on the jacket. I also like the conceit of the first story — a rematch between the tortoise and the hare, this time with the hare determined to win. Despite the adage at the end, it is the hollowness of victory that resonates long after reading the tale. So when I began this book, I was very much predisposed to loving it.

At his best, Novak is very, very good. Particularly in some of his longer stories, he turns a lens towards an aspect of life that is right on point, though his approach is so sly that it takes a while to get the point, if indeed we ever do. In one of my favourite stories, a man seeks out his grandmother in heaven because of a childhood promise to meet up after death, except the grandmother keeps putting him off, and it turns out, she’s too busy partying with Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and the like to hang out with him. The punchline is in the big reveal, and there’s the comedic moment of surprise and reversal. But like any good comedy, the power is in the emotion beneath the surprise. There’s something bittersweet about the ending — when the grandmother explains to the man that they’ve both changed since that childhood promise was made, it reminds us of how much we do change and lose our childhood selves. But there’s also something satisfying about it — both grandmother and grandson end up happy, living separate lives in heaven. I’m not quite sure what the story means, but there’s that sense at the end of it, as in all good stories, that there is something indefinable beyond the page.

In yet another favourite, a man purchases a made-to-order girlfriend, who is perfect in every way, until she starts becoming emotionally needy and he is ill-equipped to cope. A somewhat less restrained version of the movie Herexcept unlike Scarlett Johansson’s character, the one in this story is stuck in a particular body and unable to explore the world beyond being the protagonist’s girlfriend. The story is thoughtful and smart, and while I wish Novak had added more complexity to his characterizations, the story still packed a punch.

Despite some strong works, many of the stories are simply okay. There’s the slightest touch of insight at the end, yet the impact fails to linger barely a page after. It’s possible to make a really short story (less than a page long) powerful, yet many of Novak’s shorter works are more likely to elicit a shrug and turn of the page than anything else. You’d think, “Uh huh, so what?” then realize Novak’s left you nothing to work with and you just need to move on to the next story. Worse are some stories that seem too self-consciously funny or clever. You can just hear the suspense building up and the comic letting loose with a punchline and waiting for the audience to laugh. It doesn’t work on the page — the buildup is too brief and the punchline not enough of a surprise to elicit the desired response. And the obviousness of what that desired response should be just makes it annoying.

One More Thing is worth checking out at a library for a few gems. It’s best read by dipping into a story at a time, in between other tasks in the day, rather than read cover to cover, particularly in one sitting. I’ve heard good things about the audio book, which was narrated by Novak himself and some other well known actors, and perhaps that’s a much better medium for this.

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