The Gilded Years by Karin Tanabe

The Gilded YearsThe premise of The Gilded Years by Karin Tanabe immediately grabbed my attention. Set at Vassar at the end of the 19th century, it tells the story of Anita Hemmings the first black women to graduate from the gilded institution. While at Vasser, she passed as white until … well, you know. It is wonderfully researched and I loved the afterword that tells you what parts are made up and what is true. Continue reading

Mislaid by Nell Zink

Mislaid by Nell ZinkI was in a bit of a reading funk, and then Mislaid by Nell Zink came along and rocked my world. Somehow Zink manages to take on the establishment (read Old White Guys) in every way AND tell a good story without being preachy or too agenda oriented. Continue reading

My October by Claire Holden Rothman

My October by Claire Holden RothmanMy October by Claire Holden Rothman is what CanLit should be. It is a gripping story that is utterly Canadian. But more importantly, it made me think about Canada’s recent political history and the on-going legacy of Quebec Nationalism. Continue reading

Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie

burnt-shadowsI recently read and reviewed A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie. As I mentioned then, Shamsie is one of my favorite South Asian writers, so when Ali at HeavenAli said Burnt Shadows was even better, I considered it a challenge. It had long been on my TBR list and decided now was the time to dive in. Continue reading

The Wicked Girls by Alex Marwood

wicked-girlsThe Wicked Girls by Alex Marwood is not my typical fare. It is a thriller about the unintentionally intertwined lives of two women forever joined together by a crime they committed in their childhoods. After serving their time in juvenile detention they are given new identities for their own protection and go on to try to make new lives for themselves.

Much of the novel has to do with living a lie. The two protagonists, Kirsty and Amber, have to live their lives as adults without revealing their pasts. For both of them, this means never revealing to their partners their true selves. For Kirsty, a suburban working mom, this puts strain on her family life. For Amber, on the other hand, her partner is equally cagey about his past.

The Wicked Girls, like many of the novels I’ve been reading lately, is set in England. Before I moved to the UK I did not read very much British writing, unless it was nominated for a major prize. Although one would not think that the cultural differences between the UK and North America are that great, I am delighting in the subtle differences in the two cultures. This is something I don’t think I would have appreciated without having lived in both places. In particular, books like The Wicked Girls have focused on some of the grittier sides of life in Britain, something I do not encounter in my daily life here, but class differences in the UK are something I am growing increasingly aware of. Although class issues exist everywhere, over here they seem very different than in North America – more pronounced and more permanent.

Who would like this book? As I mentioned at the top The Wicked Girls is a thriller, a genre I don’t generally read. In my own snobbish way I tend to think that thrillers won’t be well written. That is certainly not the case with The Wicked Girls. Alex Marwood is the pseudonym for a London based journalist. The novel is smart and well written. In many ways it reminds me of Linwood Barclay‘s thrillers, perhaps because they both have journalistic backgrounds.

Elders by Ryan McIlvain

eldersI was turned onto Elders after hearing an interview with author Ryan McIlvain on the radio. The topic of the novel fascinated me: Mormon missionaries doing service in Brazil. Yes, the novel is about members of the Church of Latter Day Saints going door to door in a mid sized Brazilian town. I really did not understand the distribution of Mormons throughout the world until I read this. I thought the movement was a largely North American phenomena focused predominately in Utah. Not so.

Throughout the novel the protagonist, Elder McLeod, struggles with his faith (all Mormon missionaries are referred to as Elder). He comes from a prominent Boston Mormon family, but is not as convinced of his religiosity as those around him. Added onto this is the overwhelming sense of anti-Americanism Elder McLeod experiences in post 911 Brazil. These pressures compounded with a zealous missionary partner propel McLeod to make some questionable decisions. In fact, Elders is very much a coming of age novel about self discovery.

As much as I was fascinated by the topic of the novel, my over all feeling was that it fell a little bit flat. That may be because I had built Elders up in my head after hearing the interview with McIlvain on the radio. It is an okay read, certainly not a waste of time, but I was expecting amazing. The main characters are well drawn out, though some of the secondary ones are predictable and flat. The internal and external conflicts McIlvain encounters are wide ranging and interesting: from issues of sexuality and sexual expression to being American when America is not the most popular nation on the block.

Who would like this book? I was attracted to Elders because of the insight it gave into the modern, international world of Mormonism. In recent years there have been a spate of books dealing with Mormons, but most of the deal with the more extreme forms of the religion and the plight of women (see Amity and Sorrow). Elders stands apart from those as it deals with more mainstream Mormonism in a cosmopolitan world.

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma

unchangeable spotsThe Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma is one of those post-modern, meta novels that is hard to describe. There are stories within stories, outside of stories all told by a highly unreliable nameless (or multiply named?) narrator. Sound confusing? Well, it was and it wasn’t. One thing that can clearly be said about The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is that it is brilliant. I feel like I’ve been saying that about books too frequently lately, but it is true. It is also true that I do not choose to read books that I don’t think will appeal to me.

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is a readers’ and a writers’ novel. The two main protagonists are writers who meet in college and continually push each other to achieve greater writing. One of them finds fame, the other doesn’t but leads an exciting life. At its heart it is a novel about writing. For the die hard readers out there, the novel is jam packed full of literary illusions from all over the place. I probably only caught onto a fraction of them, but the ones I saw were captivating. I suspect that due to all the literary illusions it is a novel that gets better with multiple readings, kind of like the movie Magnolia, that gets better each time I watch it.

The central theme of the book is truth and the nature of storytelling. Jansma plays with these two ideas throughout the novel to the point where you do not know what is really happening, or just happening to make a better story. The narrator slips on different identities that become so real you forget that he is just playing a part. It becomes all the more confusing when he meets his doppelganger in Ghana. While trying on these different identities the narrator tells the same story of love and loss, but in different ways and in different setting, though the outcome is always the same. It is utterly fascinating the way Jansma weaves the narrative together.

Who would like this book? As I have already mentioned, this is a writers’ and a readers’ book. As a writer it appealed to me in the same was as The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman did. It is about writing, struggling to find your story and making it better. The writing style of The Changeable Spots of Leopards, which I like to call post-something and meta, reminds me very much of Eleanor Catton‘s The Rehearsal. Because you are never exactly sure where you are, the narrative style is slightly destabilizing, but highly rewarding once you orient yourself. Overall, I really enjoyed this book. It is challenging at times, but it is also humorous, adventuresome and rewarding.

Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer

frances and bernardThe buzz surrounding Frances and Bernard, the debut novel by Carlene Bauer, since its recent release (January 23, 2013 in Canada and February 5, 2013 in UK) has been immense. By the time I picked it last week I was filled with anticipation and excitement. Certainly, the characters of the story interested me – two writers, a novelist and a poet, who meet at a writers retreat and establish a long letter-writing relationship. These characters are based to a large extent on Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell and their long relationship.

For the most part the novel is comprised of letters going back and forth between the title characters. The most revealing and interesting letters, however, were often those written to others outside of this relationship – Frances’ best friend, an agent, an aging nun and Bernard’s closest friend.

I must admit that as excited as I was about Frances and Bernard, I initially found it to be a bit of a struggle. In fact, those first sixty pages were some of the longest sixty pages I’ve read in a long time. They were dominated by discussions of faith: Bernard’s recent conversion to Catholicism and Frances’ life long commitment to it. And as fitting two writers who read a lot, they batted back and forth names and ideas belonging to those such as St. Augustine and Simone Weil. I’ve got to be honest with you here, I have a degree in Religious Studies and these discussions to me back to some of my most boring and loathed classes.

After that initial hump, the book really picks up. I don’t want to tell you how or why the book picks up, but let’s just say it becomes a little more plot driven and a little less philosophical. In fact, Frances and Bernard becomes a rather poignant love story.

Who would like this book? Fans of letter writing and the epistolary novel rejoice! Letter writing is an art that is deftly mastered in Frances and Bernard. That each character’s writing voice is so strong and distinct really showcases Bauer’s talent. Due to the religious angst that Bernard experiences Francis and Bernard reminded me of J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, which was a novel I adored in high school, so I might recommend it as a companion piece. Personally, I plan to follow up Frances and Bernard with Bauer’s own memoir Not That Kind of Girl, which recounts her own struggles with her Evangelical upbringing.

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.

Canada Reads: Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan

twosolitudesAt first glance Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan seems like a natural choice to sweep Canada Reads. It is an iconic Canadian novel and Governor General Award winner that captures the plight of the English and French in Quebec in the early part of the twentieth century. MacLennan’s writing is clean, crisp and timeless, concealing the fact that it was written more than sixty years ago.

But as I got more into the novel, I became less convinced. The plot moves along at a snail’s pace. This is largely due to MacLennan’s impromptu ravings over the (multiple) two solitudes that form the backbone of the novel. He expounds many times and at length on the dichotomies that prop his story up: French vs. English, Catholic vs. Protestant, Religion vs. Science, America vs. Canada and the list goes on. I think I prefer a little more subtly. Overall, these digressions make the novel about 200 pages longer than it should have been.

Some of the characters in Two Solitudes, however, are truly memorable and Canadian. I am thinking specifically of Yardley, the retired seaman from Nova Scotia who decides to buy a farm in the all French outpost of St. Marc. He is one of those characters in Canadian literature that you can’t help but love. I put him up along side Matthew Cuthbert. The relationship that develops between Yardley and young Paul is one of the sustaining factors of the novel. This relationship is certainly more plausible that the supposed romance that takes between Yardley’s granddaughter and Paul. But now I am digressing much as MacLennan does.

Initially I thought Two Solitudes would fair quite nicely in the Canada Reads debates, but now I’m not so sure. Away, defended by Charlotte Gray, and The Age of Hopedefended by Ron MacLean will surely surpass Two Solitudes. I think Two Solitudes‘ defender Jay Baruchel has a lot of popular support, but can he stand up to the likes of Gray and MacLean?

Who would like this book? The usual CBC Canada Reads crowd – that goes without saying. I think this novel would also appeal to the historically and politically minded. It really is a key work in depicting Canada’s social history.