BOOK REVIEW | Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
February 1862. The Civil War is less than one year old. The fighting has begun in earnest, and the nation has begun to realize it is in for a long, bloody struggle. Meanwhile, President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, lies upstairs in the White House, gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. “My poor boy, he was too good for this earth,” the president says at the time. “God has called him home.” Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns, alone, to the crypt several times to hold his boy’s body.

From that seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. Within this transitional state—called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo—a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.

My thoughts:
This book is stunning – unique in style and rich in substance. I have never read anything like this before, and loved this new reading experience. This is one of those rare books that I could start over again immediately.

Willie, Abraham Lincoln’s eleven year old son, falls ill and dies leaving Abraham wrought with guilt and sorrow. Willie passes on to the bardo, a Tibetan concept of purgatory, and is greeted by other spirits who are stuck in this place, refusing to believe themselves dead. The ghosts want to help Willie move through to the other side, as young ones are not meant to tarry. Over the course of one night, Abraham visits Willie’s grave multiple times to be with his boy once more. Meanwhile, the United States is at war and we gain insights into Abraham’s torment about the state of the country, and how his grief shaped his presidency.

The story is told by the ghosts in purgatory as well as through historical accounts, making for a completely new reading journey. It took me a little getting used to, but all of the insights painted a layered picture of who Abraham Lincoln was, as well as the depth of his grief.

The impression I carried away was that I had seen, not so much the President of the United States, as the saddest man in the world.

An examination of grief, Saunders astutely captures the horror of a parent loosing a child. It’s all consuming, backwards, unimaginable. This is not the story of a president, but rather of a father who is desperate in his sorrow – so desperate that holding his son’s body, just a little longer, feels like the right thing to do. A beautiful and haunting book that won’t leave me soon.

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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 | 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 | A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
On the eve of Angolan independence an agoraphobic woman named Ludo bricks herself into her apartment for 30 years, living off vegetables and the pigeons she lures in with diamonds, burning her furniture and books to stay alive and writing her story on the apartment’s walls.
Almost as if we’re eavesdropping, the history of Angola unfolds through the stories of those she sees from her window. As the country goes through various political upheavals from colony to socialist republic to civil war to peace and capitalism, the world outside seeps into Ludo’s life through snippets on the radio, voices from next door, glimpses of someone peeing on a balcony, or a man fleeing his pursuers.

My thoughts:
This book is stunning; poetic and concise, with a bit of a magical feel. This is the story of Ludo, who shuts herself into her apartment by building a brick wall on the even of Angolan Independence. She will stay here for the next 30 years, struggling to survive. First, she uses up her stores, then she begins eating fruit from her terrace, eventually she turns to pigeons for sustenance – all the while burning books and furniture for warmth. Along the way, we are introduced to a variety of players in the Angolan war, as well as one unexpected character who changes the course for Ludo.

This story is told through narrative, prose, and Ludo’s journal entries. There are so many beautiful passages in this book but this one, taken from Ludo’s journal, resonated deeply with me:

I carve out verses
short
as prayers

words are
legions
of demons
expelled

I cut adverbs
pronouns

I spare my
wrists

This is a short and powerful read – a true work of art.

BOOK REVIEW | Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye

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3.5/5 stars

From the publisher:
Like the heroine of the novel she adores, Jane Steele suffers cruelly at the hands of her aunt and schoolmaster. And like Jane Eyre, they call her wicked – but in her case, she fears the accusation is true. When she flees, she leaves behind the corpses of her tormentors.

A fugitive navigating London’s underbelly, Jane rights wrongs on behalf of the have-nots whilst avoiding the noose. Until an advertisement catches her eye. Her aunt has died and the new master at Highgate House, Mr Thornfield, seeks a governess. Anxious to know if she is Highgate’s true heir, Jane takes the position and is soon caught up in the household’s strange spell. When she falls in love with the mysterious Charles Thornfield, she faces a terrible dilemma: can she possess him – body, soul and secrets – and what if he discovers her murderous past?

My thoughts:
I warn the tempted: secrets decay, as corpses do, growing ranker over time.

I’ve wanted to pick up Jane Steele since it’s release, and finally decided to jump in. Jane Eyre is one of my all time favourite books and as a fan of the macabre, this had my name all over it. This is a fun read, especially for fans of it’s inspiration. This book works really well if you haven’t read the original – however, there are a lot of great moments in there for those who have.

The first half of Jane Steele had me sold and I was loving every second. The story begins with Jane as a young girl, living at Highgate House with her mother. Family drama ensues, leaving Jane and her mother to live in a guest house on the property. Shortly before her death, Jane’s mother reveals to her that she is will inherit Highgate House one day. Jane is sent to boarding school, events unfold, and let’s just say more murder takes place. In the second half of the book, Jane returns to Highgate House as a governess hired by it’s new master, Charles Thornfield. A bit of momentum was lost for me during this part of the story but there were enough twist, turns, revelations, and gore to satisfy. Oh, and the love story between Jane and Charles is fantastic.

Jane Steele is well written and engaging, and I enjoyed that Jane was a Dexter-style killer – she only takes down bad guys. I have a copy of The Gods of Gotham sitting on my bookshelf unread, and I think I’ll pick it up soon as I’d definitely like to read Faye’s 100% original work.

BOOK REVIEW | Wenjack by Josheph Boyden

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
An Ojibwe boy runs away from a North Ontario Indian School. Too late, he realizes just how far away home is. Along the way he’s followed by Manitous, spirits of the forest who comment on his plight, cajoling, taunting, and ultimately offering him a type of comfort on his difficult journey back to the place he was so brutally removed from.

My thoughts:
Wenjack is the most important book that I have read in 2016. As a Canadian, I’ve heard about the horrors of Residential Schools, but they weren’t in the school curriculum and always felt like something distant. Wenjack helped to open my eyes to the terrible injustices suffered by so many First Nations children from the 19th C to 1996. Canada is known for being peaceful, and it can be hard to fathom the true evil that is a part of it’s history. From physical, emotional, and sexual abuse to eugenics, Canada’s history is wrought with pain.

Boyden takes us on a beautiful journey as he tells us the true story of Chanie, a young boy who ran away from a Residential School only to die in the elements on his journey home. This story is creatively told from the perspective of both Chanie and the creatures of the woods he is walking through. Chanie will stay with me forever – if he were alive to day he would be just a little older than my parents.

Wenjack ties in with Gord Downie’s project, The Secret Path. I watched the film when it aired on CBC, and plan to pick up the graphic novel soon as well. I’m thankful to both Boyden and Downie for bringing this story to light in popular culture. Now, reconciliation.