BOOK REVIEW | Hollow Heart by Viola Di Grado

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3.5/5 stars

From the publisher:
In this courageous, inventive, and intelligent novel, Viola di Grado tells the story of a suicide and what follows. She has given voice to an astonishing vision of life after life, portraying the awful longing and sense of loss that plague the dead, together with the solitude provoked by the impossibility of communicating. The afterlife itself is seen as a dark, seething place where one is preyed upon by the cruel and unrelenting elements. Hollow Heart will frighten as it provokes, enlighten as it causes concern. If ever there were a novel that follows Kafka’s prescription for a book to be a frozen axe for the sea within us, it is Hollow Heart.

My thoughts:
Di Grado’s imaginative second novel, Hollow Heart, opens with a punch to the gut:

In 2011 the world ended: I killed myself.

It’s immediately evident that this is not going to be your average ghost story. Our narrator, Dorotea, navigates the living world from the perspective of the afterworld. She visits people and places she knew while living, all the while returning daily to her corpse to fascinate in its decomposition. As a side note – this a book not for the faint of heart – graphic depictions of the decomposition of a human body are present throughout. I, of course, reveled in its casual discussion of gore.

For a book about death, this is surprisingly refreshing. It’s creative and introspective, and reads almost autobiographically. Dorotea has experiences and thoughts that will be relatable to many women in their 20’s (such as an obsession with skinny bodies). We learn that Dorotea’s mother suffered from depression, that her father was not present in her life, and that suicide is no stranger to her family; Dorotea works through her struggles from the other side, and does a bit of haunting while she’s at it.

Dorotea discusses the suicide attempt of Sinéad O’Connor, and untimely deaths of other celebrities such as Whitney Houston and Amy Winehouse, with a fascination that was both fun to read but occasionally jarring. I’d be wrapped up in some lovely prose or dialogue, when suddenly there would be 2 pages or so on a celebrity’s death.

Sinéad had tried to kill herself but hadn’t succeeded. I had. Between her and me, who had won, and who had lost?

This book was not perfect for me – it felt repetitive at times (and this is a very short book), and dragged a little in the middle. The first and final seconds are beautifully written, however, and I was fascinated with Dorothea’s growth in the afterlife. A unique read that will resonate with those who are living with depression.

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BOOK REVIEW | The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
This stunning, exquisitely written collection introduces a cast of remarkable characters whose lives intersect in ways both life-affirming and heartbreaking. A 1930s Soviet censor painstakingly corrects offending photographs, deep underneath Leningrad, bewitched by the image of a disgraced prima ballerina. A chorus of women recount their stories and those of their grandmothers, former gulag prisoners who settled their Siberian mining town. Two pairs of brothers share a fierce, protective love. Young men across the former USSR face violence at home and in the military. And great sacrifices are made in the name of an oil landscape unremarkable except for the almost incomprehensibly peaceful past it depicts. In stunning prose, with rich character portraits and a sense of history reverberating into the present, The Tsar of Love and Techno is a captivating work from one of our greatest new talents.

My thoughts:
We’ve given them all we can, but our greatest gift has been to imprint upon them our ordinariness. They may begrudge us, may think us unambitious and narrow-minded, but someday they will realize that what makes them unremarkable is what keeps them alive.

I don’t read too many short story collections, but am so glad that I picked this one up. The Tsar of Love and Techno is a gorgeous, heartbreaking, and hopeful work of art that pulled me deep into it’s world. Marra’s prose is breathtaking and poignant at times (some of the most beautiful passages I’ve ever read are in the final pages of this book), and biting and humorous at others.

9 interconnected short stories take the reader on a journey from the 1930’s USSR to present day Russia. Marra brilliantly ties the stories together through both a painting and the atrocities of war. The second to last story,  A Temporary Exhibition, binds the previous stories together, leading to a extraordinarily powerful finale.

This collection is so perfectly crafted that it read more like a novel to me, and I almost want to read this again right away. I’ll leave you with this passage that took gave me pause; I lingered on it, read it three times, and lamented the ending of this book.

The calcium in collarbones I have kissed. The iron in the blood flushing those cheeks. We imprint our intimacies upon atoms born from an explosion so great it still marks the emptiness of space. A shimmer of photons bears the memory across the long dark amnesia. We will be carried too, mysterious particles that we are.

BOOK REVIEW | Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor (The Chronicles of St. Mary’s #1)

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2/5 stars

From the publisher:
Behind the seemingly innocuous façade of St Mary’s, a different kind of historical research is taking place. They don’t do ‘time-travel’ – they ‘investigate major historical events in contemporary time’. Maintaining the appearance of harmless eccentrics is not always within their power – especially given their propensity for causing loud explosions when things get too quiet.

Meet the disaster-magnets of St Mary’s Institute of Historical Research as they ricochet around History. Their aim is to observe and document – to try and find the answers to many of History’s unanswered questions…and not to die in the process. But one wrong move and History will fight back – to the death. And, as they soon discover – it’s not just History they’re fighting.

Follow the catastrophe curve from 11th-century London to World War I, and from the Cretaceous Period to the destruction of the Great Library at Alexandria. For wherever Historians go, chaos is sure to follow in their wake….

My thoughts:
This was a book club selection and way outside of my normal realm of reading – which I guess is the point of participating in a book club, right? Unfortunately, partially due to my own shortcomings, this book didn’t work for me.

I will be the first to admit that I struggle with any sort of fantasy or science fiction – it takes a lot to sell me on plots of this nature. I find it difficult to suspend reality, and as a result am unable to become invested in the story or the characters. That said, I understand why so many people love this series: there’s romance, passion, a strong and independent female lead, action, adventure, and a ton of fun. I guess I’m just a boring old biddy who likes her books more on the introspective side.

This is the story of St. Mary’s Institute of Historical Research and the historians that work there. These historians, however, take their research to the next level through breakthrough technology – they can travel through time to investigate the historical events they are so enamoured with. Naturally, messing about with time travel and diving into time periods such as the Cretaceous can only lead to troubling results. The story revolves around Maxwell, described early on as a disaster magnet, and it’s no surprise that she finds herself in a wild array of dangerous situations. The cliffhanger at the crux hints at another wild ride for those who continue on to book #2.

I found the writing underwhelming – I crave great writing even when reading something that is just for fun. Additionally, I found some of the plot points to be choppy and there was a bit of jumping around which I found jarring. I think if the writing was tightened up I would have enjoyed this book a lot more. That said, I don’t regret this read at all – it introduced me to a new genre of book and definitely piqued my interest in this category! I’ve heard of a few other series’ with similar time traveling plot lines that I am curious to look into now.

BOOK REVIEW | N0S4A2 by Joe Hill

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
Victoria McQueen has a secret gift for finding things: a misplaced bracelet, a missing photograph, answers to unanswerable questions. On her Raleigh Tuff Burner bike, she makes her way to a rickety covered bridge that, within moments, takes her wherever she needs to go, whether it’s across Massachusetts or across the country.

Charles Talent Manx has a way with children. He likes to take them for rides in his 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith with the NOS4A2 vanity plate. With his old car, he can slip right out of the everyday world, and onto the hidden roads that transport them to an astonishing – and terrifying – playground of amusements he calls “Christmasland.”

Then, one day, Vic goes looking for trouble—and finds Manx. That was a lifetime ago. Now Vic, the only kid to ever escape Manx’s unmitigated evil, is all grown up and desperate to forget. But Charlie Manx never stopped thinking about Victoria McQueen. He’s on the road again and he’s picked up a new passenger: Vic’s own son.

My thoughts:
Everyone…lives inside the world inside their own head. An inscape, a world of thought. Emotions are as real as gravity. Dreams are as powerful as history. Creative people, like writers and Henry Rollins, spend a lot of their time hanging out in their thoughtworld.

This is my third Joe Hill read, and I am 100% sold now – this book is fantastic. Yep, I’m going all in. I need to read everything he’s written, and will be first in line when he releases something new. Joe’s books are consistently imaginative and a bit over the top, and this one takes the cake in the best way possible. This is the story of Vic McQueen, the perils of motherhood, the loss of childhood innocence, and the power of imagination. Oh yeah, there’s a totally terrifying bad guy too.

As a child, Vic McQueen discovers that she has a special gift – she is a strong creative who utilizes her bicycle to conjure up a bridge that she can cross to find misplaced objects. She meets a librarian named Maggie who helps her to understand her gift; she also warns her about someone named Charlie Manx. Charlie possesses the same gift, and uses it to kidnap children  and take them to a place where they can be eternally happy, Christmasland. Vic and Charlie eventually meet, and let’s just say the encounter does not end well.

Years later, Vic is an adult with a son named Wayne, and a complicated relationship with Wayne’s father, Lou. She appears to be descending into madness as a result of her childhood encounter with Charlie, but lovable Lou stays by her side and believes her story without question. Before long, Charlie returns.

This book reads like a movie – I was able to perfectly picture every character and every scene thanks to Hill’s engrossing prose. Hill has created a world where the impossible seems possible, with a flawed but completely kick-ass main character, and one of the best villains that I’ve read. Charlie Manx is way more interesting than your run of the mill bad guy, he truly believes he is helping children by bringing them to a place where they will experience nothing but joy. As it turns out, even kids need to work through unpleasant emotions and life disappointments – less they turn into tiny gleeful killers.

I leave you with one of my favourite moments from the book, an exchange between Lou and Wayne:

I think you’re suffering from the human condition.
Can you die from that?
Yeah…it’s pretty much fatal in every case.

BOOK REVIEW | The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

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4.5/5 stars

From the publisher:
In the latest masterpiece by Emma Donoghue, bestselling author of Room, an English nurse brought to a small Irish village to observe what appears to be a miracle-a girl said to have survived without food for months-soon finds herself fighting to save the child’s life.

Tourists flock to the cabin of eleven-year-old Anna O’Donnell, who believes herself to be living off manna from heaven, and a journalist is sent to cover the sensation. Lib Wright, a veteran of Florence Nightingale’s Crimean campaign, is hired to keep watch over the girl.

Written with all the propulsive tension that made Room a huge bestseller, THE WONDER works beautifully on many levels–a tale of two strangers who transform each other’s lives, a powerful psychological thriller, and a story of love pitted against evil.

My thoughts:
How could the child bear not just the hunger, but the boredom? The rest of humankind used meals to divide the day, Lib realized – as reward, as entertainment, the chiming of an inner clock.

This book is fantastic! Admittedly, I went into this with fairly low expectations, but it blew those out of the water. It’s atmospheric and slow burning, mysterious and infuriating.

The year is 1859, shortly after the Crimean war and Lib, an English nurse, is called to Ireland to take watch over a young girl named Anna who claims she no longer needs food to live. In a time of religious fervor, the people of the town believe that Anna is a living wonder, chosen by God. Lib is convinced that Anna is playing an elaborate prank on everyone, sneaking food on the sly, and watches her every move closely in an attempt to figure out how she’s doing it. Anna’s explanation is that for the last four months, she has lived on manna from heaven – this confounds Lib, who is determined to understand what the girl means. No one can sustain themselves for this long without some nourishment, this she knows to be true.

The story unfolds slowly, leading up to startling confessions and disturbing realizations. Lib knows she must take immediate, drastic action to save Anna, who has deteriorated physically.

The Wonder asks the reader to consider questions about religious conviction, loyalty, and parenthood. It will keep you flipping the pages as you race to discover the truth.

BOOK REVIEW | Sweetland by Michael Crummey

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4/5 stars

From the publisher:
For twelve generations, when the fish were plentiful and when they all-but disappeared, the inhabitants of this remote island in Newfoundland have lived and died together. Now, in the second decade of the 21st century, they are facing resettlement, and each has been offered a generous compensation package to leave. But the money is offered with a proviso: everyone has to go; the government won’t be responsible for one crazy coot who chooses to stay alone on an island.

     That coot is Moses Sweetland. Motivated in part by a sense of history and belonging, haunted by memories of the short and lonely time he spent away from his home as a younger man, and concerned that his somewhat eccentric great-nephew will wilt on the mainland, Moses refuses to leave. But in the face of determined, sometimes violent, opposition from his family and his friends, Sweetland is eventually swayed to sign on to the government’s plan. Then a tragic accident prompts him to fake his own death and stay on the deserted island. As he manages a desperately diminishing food supply, and battles against the ravages of weather, Sweetland finds himself in the company of the vibrant ghosts of the former islanders, whose porch lights still seem to turn on at night.

My thoughts:

Life is beautiful…And we love it because it ends. And we fight for it because it ends. – Michael Crummey

This quote, taken from an interview at The Star with Michael Crummey, makes me want to weep. How beautiful is it to realize that we have to fight for the life we desire? We have to fight because it will be over so quickly.

Sweetland is my second novel by a Newfoundlander in 2016 – the first being Michael Winter’s Minister Without Portfolio – and I absolutely love reading about the way of life and landscape of seaside towns. This is an area of Canada that I would love to explore, and books like these paint the region so beautifully. In Sweetland, Michael Crummey explores a dying way of life as well as mortality, aging, history, and mental illness.

Moses Sweetland, a lifelong inhabitant of his town that bears the same name, is set in his ways and is not interested in the government relocation effort that is taking over the town – despite being offered a generous sum of $100,000. There is one other person who resists relocation as well, but soon enough Moses is the sole resistor. To receive their compensation all residents must agree to relocate; as a result of his resistance,  Moses becomes the recipient of threatening messages. Moses eventually agrees to the government’s plan, but a tragic accident causes him to fake his own death and return to the island. The second part of the book begins here, with Moses alone on the island, struggling to survive.

You may be thinking that a book with a single character in it for 150+ pages would be boring or not worth the read but, for me, this couldn’t have been further from the truth. I adored how quiet this book was, how Crummey painted a vivid portrait of the town that allowed us to better understand Moses and his history. I felt so connected to Moses, this curmudgeonly man who slowly descends into a poor mental state, and rooted for him the whole way through. The final chapter is so heartbreaking and beautiful that I immediately read it a second time. This is a  work of quiet beauty that had me from the first page to the last.