BOOK REVIEW | White Teeth by Zadie Smith

3/5 stars

I’ve delayed writing this review because I’m struggling a little with placing it appropriately. Zadie Smith is an immaculate writer and this book is witty and insightful, with razor sharp prose. Smith writes dialect beautifully, crafting characters that feel real. Something is lacking in the plot for me though, and while this is a character driven story, something is missing from each character’s arc that would push this into 5 star territory. This is a multi-generational saga that follows 2 two very different families as they overcome immigration, racial tension, war, and the pressures to raise their children in modern society without losing connection to their heritage. Throw in some genetic engineering and The Godfather, and that about sums it up.

There is a weighty plot here with a lot going on, but it essentially boils down to the story of Archie and Samad, two friends who meet at war, and their families. Archie, an Englishman, marries a Jamaican woman named Clara, and they have a daughter, Irie. Samad and his wife Alsana are Bengali immigrants and they have twin boys, Magid and Millat. I absolutely loved Clara but she disappears before long, becoming a secondary character. There was an interesting friendship between Clara and Alsana which could have been fleshed out into something significant as well.

I felt the deepest connection with Irie and I wanted so much more from her story; I would have loved to follow Magid and Millat further, to find out how they reconciled after a lengthy separation. Too many narratives felt incomplete and I wanted to go deeper. We are introduced to a third family, the Chaulfens, resulting in a completely unexpected turn in the plot. I found many scenes with the Chaulfens to be worthwhile, but ultimately felt like I was reading two different books – it felt disjointed.

Smith’s style is reminiscent of my favorite writer, John Irving: confident, bold, a little over the top, but never lacking in the right amount of sentimentality. Even though this wasn’t a home run for me, I’m really looking forward to reading more of Smith’s work.

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BOOK REVIEW | Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro

5/5 stars

I prayed forgiveness…for God to pluck me out like a coal from the fire… But Brothers, Sisters: What if that’s the wrong prayer? What if the right prayer is ‘Let me burn, only walk beside me in the flames’?.

Wow, that was intense. I’m not generally interested in books about religion, but Fire Sermon flipped the genre on its head, challenging the confines that keep devout followers trapped in unhappy circumstances.

Maggie, raised Christian, is married, contently. She has two kids, a boy and a girl, who are getting older and heading off into ventures of their own. Her husband, Thomas, is kind and attentive, though admittedly atheist. Maggie reaches out to James, a poet she admires, and the pair soon begin conversing regularly. Before long, Maggie and James are in the throws of a passionate, illicit affair. James provides Maggie with what she didn’t know she was missing; he encourages her to write and share her own poetry, and offers spiritually and intellectually satisfying theological debate. Though devoted to Thomas, Maggie struggles with her desires, and what she will lose if she continues in her affair with James.

You will watch the fire consume everything you care about. You will be left with ash – the proper and only end of any burning.

This book is as much about spirituality and monogamy as it is about the nature of female desire. In less capable hands, I don’t think this story would have been so effecting, but Jamie Quatro is a phenomenal writer. Her prose is haunting and poetic, resulting in a book that asks complex questions without surmising a moral standpoint.

BOOK REVIEW | Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich

4/5 stars

It’s been a while since I’ve read a good dystopian book, and Future Home of the Living God was an entertaining and disturbing foray back to the genre.

It starts with Cedar heading off to meet her Ojibwe birth parents, Sweetie and Eddy. She is initially resistant to their caring, armed with questions about why they weren’t able to keep her. Cedar is pregnant and we know she is nervous to tell her birth parents, but at this point we don’t know why. Though part 1 feels a bit disjointed from the rest of the book, Sweetie and Eddy (along with Cedar’s adopted parents) become pivotal characters later on.

We soon learn that pregnant women are being captured, and Cedar must do her best to keep her growing baby from becoming visible. Cedar’s boyfriend, Glen, helps to keep her hidden but she is ultimately captured.

I loved everything that happened after Cedar is captured – it’s exactly what you’d want out of a dystopian story. However, there is a lack of detail that could have taken this book over the top; we know that evolution has stopped, or is possibly moving backwards and I wanted more from this. There is one scene in which Cedar believes she sees a saber-tooth that is fantastic and a clear indication that the world is moving backwards, but it’s the only moment that is this explicit. The reverse-evolutionary theme never fully pulls through.

While I enjoyed this story, it was very difficult to ignore the clear influence of The Handmaid’s Tale – so much of this book felt all too familiar, especially the ending. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, just worth noting. Overall, I really enjoyed this book – Erdrich is a unique storyteller with a passionate voice, and I can feel the significance of this work to her within its pages. In a world in which bodily agency is under attack, can we truly move forward?

BOOK REVIEW | Live Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson

5/5 stars

“Name?” The desk clerk said to me politely… “Age?” She asked…”Occupation?”

“Writer,” I said.

“Housewife,” she said.

“Writer,” I said.

“I’ll just put down housewife, she said.

“Husband’s name?” She said…”Occupation?”

“Just put down housewife,” I said.

My first delve into Shirley Jackson’s non-fiction was beyond satisfying. I’ve read her horror, as well as Ruth Ware’s fantastic biography, and now, her humour. Life Among the Savages is a sort of memoir, Jackson reflecting on the mundanity of domestic life as well as raising her children – first two, then three, and by the end of the book, four.

It’s comforting to know that this book, first published in 1953, still rings true today. As a mom to two young boys, I often feel like I’m living among savages! Jackson’s characteristic dry wit turns moments of utter chaos into something many parents will relate to. Parenting is ruthless, absurd, challenging, rewarding, and the hardest work I’ve ever done – but I wouldn’t change anything about it. I only wish Jackson went a little deeper into the challenges of being a working mother, all while fulfilling the expected wifely duties; it’s bubbling there beneath the surface, but she never goes all the way in.

Those without kids can still enjoy this book – Jackson’s storytelling is as perfect here is it is in her fiction. These stories may be true or may be embellished, we’ll never know. Either way, this is a worthy read for any Jackson fan and I can’t wait to dig into Raising Demons, this book’s successor.

BOOK REVIEW | Tuesday Nights in 1980 by Molly Prentiss

5/5 stars

Prentiss is ambitious with her first novel, crafting a complex, deeply interwoven narrative. The book spans countries and storylines, all the while offering a glimpse into the art scene in New York in 1980.

The story is built around a cast of fantastic supporting characters and 3 central characters: James, a synaesthetic and slightly eccentric art critic, Lucy, a small town girl who recently moved to New York, and Raul, a talented painter. These three characters will ultimately clash, a confluence of art and family. The story is so engaging that I never found myself seeking out the connections ahead of time, but rather enjoyed the progression of plot without expectation.

Prentiss’ prose is the sort that I soak up; witty, bold, and confident. Her characters are well drawn, each suffering a loss of great magnitude before ultimately finding new purpose. The character development is a driving force, moving the plot along effortlessly.

There’s a lot going on in this story, which is really its only downfall – I wasn’t ready to close the book on certain characters. I rarely say this, but this book could have been 100 pages longer and I’d be no less engrossed.

BOOK REVIEW | Brother by David Chariandy | 2018 Canada Reads Longlist

5/5 stars

There is so much packed into this slim book by David Chariandy. Brother explores topics that many would describe as timely, but that he describes as being felt by many for far too long. Chariandy dives into race, masculinity, police violence, community, the immigrant experience, and the power of music with striking precision and depth.

Michael and his older brother, Francis, live in a community called The Park in Scarborough, Ontario. Raised by their hard working Trinidadian mother, the boys are often left alone to take care of each other. Francis takes on the role of leader, guiding and teaching Michael along the way, often making mistakes of his own. With love and respect for their mother the boys stay on a clean path, but after witnessing an instance of violence, Francis is changed.

The story jumps back and forth in time from when the boys are kids to present day. As Michael and Francis struggle to find purpose and identity, the pair are subject to the prejudice that comes from having brown skin and living in an immigrant community; expectations are low. Through a love of hip hop, Francis begins to explore new opportunities, unknowingly sealing his fate. In the aftermath of tragedy, Michael discovers the healing power of his community.

Chariandy did a great job at representing for us children of Caribbean immigrants (my mother is Jamaican), layering in even more for me to love about this book. I don’t think I’ve ever seen “ackee” mentioned in a book, or that “pears” are “avocados”, at least to Caribbean folks. Knowing that so many Canadians will read this story through Canada Reads 2018 brings me so much happiness.

BOOK REVIEW | Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

4/5 stars

Celeste Ng’s latest work is a heartbreaking story about mothers and daughters, right and wrong, morality and reality, the wealthy and the not so wealthy. Little Fires Everywhere is the perfect title for this book, in which many polarizing controversies are littered throughout. I absolutely adored Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, and was beyond thrilled to win an advance copy of her latest book through Goodreads. Ng has created another special book that fans of EINTY will be sure to love.

In the picturesque town of Shaker Heights, Ohio, the Richardson family is the portrait of happiness and success. Elena and her husband are successful, and their 4 children, each 1 year apart, are well rounded and popular. Izzy, the youngest, doesn’t necessarily fit in with her family – she is a wild spirit with a knack for getting into trouble. Elena struggles to understand her youngest daughter, leading to a tenuous relationship.

When an artist, Mia, and her teenage daughter, Pearl, move into town and begin living out of the Richardson’s rental property, both families are inevitably changed. Elena values order, rules, structure. Mia moves from town to town whenever she loses her artistic inspiration, raising Pearl in an unsettled life. The longer they remain in Shaker heights, the more Pearl sets down roots. She befriends the Richardson children, often fantasizing about life in their family, while Izzy, never feeling comfortable with her own mother, finds a connection with Mia. A legal battle soon takes over Shaker Heights, leaving each family on opposite sides of the argument. Ng navigates both sides of the debate – as a reader I didn’t know where to stand. This battle shapes the later half of the story, ultimately revealing unexpected parts of both Elena’s and Mia’s pasts.

Ng has a way of drawing out qualities in her characters that capture who they are, such as the way Elena subtly leaves a cash donation on her way out of a museum. In one beautiful passage, Mia contemplates a parent’s need to touch their children, to hold them and breathe them in, and how over time the moments lessens. This nearly broke my heart; Ng’s writing is no less impactful than in her debut. I question the choices that some of the characters make towards the end, but felt safe in Ng’s capable hands. In some ways, I wish it ended differently, but I think it’s because wasn’t ready for the story to end.