The Juggler’s Children by Carolyn Abraham

Juggler's childrenWow. I loved The Juggler’s Children by Carolyn Abraham.I must say that the reason this book is so great is because Abraham is a wonderful storyteller. Normally, listening to someone go on about the ins and outs of their family history can be a little on the dull side – especially when it gets into DNA testing. But someone how Abraham has managed to weave the most captivating story out of this. Her turns of phrase are remarkable and with every page and chapter of this genealogical caper I wanted to read more. When it came to explaining the intricacies of DNA testing, Abraham makes that interesting and understandable.

Families can be as twisted as the genetic strands that bind them, old as time, born of chance and random couplings.

The story was born out of a search for identity. Abraham is of multi-ethnic background, leading people to ask “so where are you from?”. The answers of Mississauga and England did not seem satisfactory to those who saw a darkish skinned girl with unusual features, even though it was the truth. As a result Abraham looked back to her ancestors – a juggler, a sea captain, a slave owner? – to get some answers. The journey into her ancestry took her to India, China and Jamaica. As the paper trail wore thin advances in DNA testing moved Abraham in new and sometimes unexpected directions.

Who would like this book? I was drawn to this book because of Retreat by RandomHouse‘s description of  as a cross between The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat by Oliver Sacks and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. That, of course, is just another way of saying that it is a well researched and enticingly told story that has science as it’s backbone. I would also recommend it to anyone interested in genealogy. On more than one occasion it also made me think of What Disturbs Our Blood by James Fitzgerald, which I also really enjoyed.  But really, it is a well written yarn that will appeal to just about anyone.

White Dog Fell From the Sky by Eleanor Morse

White-DogI found White Dog Fell From The Sky by Eleanor Morse on a number of ‘must read’ lists for 2013. It was just released in early January and has had some buzz surrounding it. The story is set largely in Botswana and centers on Isaac, an educated, black, political refugee from South Africa during apartheid. He finds a job as a gardener with Alice, a sympathetic American. While Alice is travelling in the north of the country, Isaac goes missing. I won’t reveal more than that.

White Dog Fell From the Sky filled an important void in my literary education as I have read embarrassingly few novels about or set during apartheid in South Africa. While most of White Dog is set in Botswana, South Africa is always lurking in the background as the oppressive other. The fear and shock Isaac displays towards the mixed society that surrounds him in Botswana serves to underline what his life must have been like before he escaped from South Africa.

Although I enjoyed the setting and other aspects of the novel, I also felt it was deeply flawed. In particular, the Alice’s story line was rather meandering and somewhat unnecessary at times. Alice’s marriage troubles and her doomed love affair with an inappropriate older man cluttered what I saw as the main thrust of the novel – Isaac’s plight. These aspects of her life may have been included to explain some of Alice’s later actions, however most of the time I found her story took me away from the point of the novel for too long. On the other hand, it may be that I missed entirely what Morse was trying to achieve. I questioned my understanding of the trajectory of the novel a number of times.

Who would like this book? As with most of the books I’ve been reviewing lately, this book is definitely for someone who likes ‘literature’ as opposed to something a little bit more pedestrian. That is to say, this novel is not an easy read. Morse’s writing style is quite lyrical and the topics she explores move it into a more difficult category.

Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See by Juliann Garey

toobrighttohearI seem to have snagged Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See by first time author Juliann Garey hot off the presses – it just came out in hardcover December 26, 2012. As a result you may not have heard much about this book yet. But i say ‘yet’ because this is poised to be one of the break out novels of the year. It was precisely this positive press that made me pick it up. I was not disappointed by the book, however, i was deeply troubled.

The plot of the novel focuses on Hollywood studio executive, Greyson Todd’s descent into madness. Each chapter starts with one session of Greyson’s electroshock treatment, which brings to the fore a past memory of varying significance. As the novel proceeds we discover that he is in fact bipolar and has suffered from this condition for years. When we meet him he has hit rock bottom, abandoning his family and career for a sex and drug filled jaunt around the world that lasts years.

As I mentioned, I found the novel to be rather troubling, but not because of a large portion of it takes place in a mental institution. Instead it is Greyson’s treatment and view of women as he travels from one sexual tourist hotspot to another. In Bangkok he realizes that money, of which he has a lot, can buy him just about any woman/ girl he wants. But his lowest point comes during a visit to Africa where he uses his wealth and therefore power to marry and abandon a widow after setting he up with a good deal of money in African terms. He is cavalier in his sexual engagement with her, almost daring AIDS to come his way. I found the power imbalances in almost of Greyson’s relationships with women to be troubling at best and misogynistic at worst. I don’t know if this is made worse because the novel was written by a woman.

Garey is at her best when writing as a slightly insane movie director balanced precariously on the edge. At times it verges into almost stream of consciousness. There is confusion, erratic jumping around and self flagellation. It all makes for a very realistic telling of someone mingling with insanity. Even Greyson’s sometimes appalling treatment of women fits coherently into the character Garey has so deftly drawn. And it is the plausibility of it that makes it so troubling.

Who would like this book? This book is definitely for an edgier reader. It is for someone who likes contemporary gritty tales and isn’t afraid of getting a little dirty in the process. It would also appeal to fans of behind the scenes tales of Hollywood. Greyson is, after all, a Hollywood mogul of sorts. I would also put it in line with other books set in mental institutions such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Girl, Interupted (which i adored).