Books: Dear Martin

24974996Dear Martin by Nic Stone
Published October 17, 2017
star-3-half
I really wanted to be one of the thousands of people on goodreads raving about how powerful and moving this book was, but honestly I was a little underwhelmed. This is less a reflection of the quality of the book, or a judgment on Nic Stone’s writing, than it is a case of mismatch between reader and intended audience. YA Contemporary isn’t a genre that holds much appeal for me personally, and when I do read YA books I like those that sit towards the adult side of the YA scale. Dear Martin skews decidedly younger. It’s a book that should be present in every American high school classroom and/or library, but as a thirty-something I found it less enthralling. For all that this sounds negative, there are a lot of things to love about Dear Martin. It’s an important and timely book that tackles issues of race relations with sensitivity, and it features a realistic and engaging protagonist in Justyce McAllister. I’m glad I read it, and would recommend Dear Martin to others without hesitation, I just wish my reading experience had left me as emotionally wrecked as others seem to have been by this debut.

At seventeen-years-old, star debater Justyce McAllister is at the top of his class and bound for an ivy-league education. But when he attempts to help a drunk ex get home safely, he’s accosted by a police officer and handcuffed. Although the charges are dropped, the experience rattles him, and Justyce turns to the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

To begin with, I adored Justyce. He’s a realistically teenage and sympathetic protagonist, who is hard-working, intelligent, and yet still naive when it comes to women. Nic Stone deftly conveys Justyce’s feelings of frustration and increasing anger, first at the way he is treated by a police officer when trying to do a good deed. As Justyce becomes aware of the fact that he is viewed as lesser by classmates, who assume that his success is due to affirmative action and not his merits, Justyce begins to view the world differently and wonder what more can he do? She also depicts his feelings of isolation, as Justyce feels that he has no one to talk to that will understand what it is to be a black man. He’s an immensely likable character that I rooted for instantly, and continued to root for, and feel for, especially when his reputation is dragged through the mud in a situation where Justyce should be seen as a victim.

It goes without saying that Dear Martin is an important book. At a time when there’s a loud cry for diverse voices, Nic Stone tackles a timely topic, race relations in America including the shooting of black unarmed men by police officers, with honesty and pathos. As a white woman from a middle-class background, I can never fully understand what it’s like to be a marginalized person and to experience discrimination based on the colour of my skin. I certainly don’t know what it’s like for black men to be racially profiled by authority figures, to have to fear for their lives in encounters with police officers, or to be assumed to be less capable by their white peers. Discussion of how well Nic Stone presents this experience doesn’t belong on my blog, but on blogs of the many diverse bloggers out there who can write with authority on the subject. What I will say is that I thought Stone presented Justyce’s point of view well. I felt angry, frustrated, and ashamed of the way Justyce, and other black characters, are treated by white characters in this book, and Stone opens a window into the rightful anger and pain felt by marginalized people.

As I mentioned, YA Contemporary is not my genre, so it’s likely that Dear Martin was never going to strike me as deeply as someone who reads widely in the genre. My YA preferences also tend towards books like Six of Crows, which feature teenage characters but could just as easily be shelved outside of the Teen section of your local bookstore. Dear Martin reads like it’s intended for a younger audience. At barely two-hundred pages, some of that scenes of pure dialogue written in a script format, it zips along. You’ll undoubtedly finish it in under two hours, but I felt that it was almost TOO quick. There’s no time for events to sit, and for the impact of the story to be felt. In her acknowledgments the author thanks her editor for helping her cut the book in half and honestly I’m sorry we didn’t get a fuller version of the story.

I also found the choice of format really distracting. The majority of the novel is told in the third person, from Justyce’s POV, with excerpts in first person letter format, as Justyce writes to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. while he embarks on an experiment to be more like Dr. King (I would have preferred to see more engagement with the principles of Dr. King, since these are glossed over in the narrative and not examined in any depth). A novel using these two formats would be fine, but Stone also includes scenes that are pure dialogue, as though in a script, to document the class discussions. I found the constant shifting between these three formats, sometimes within the same chapter, a little distracting, especially in such a slim novel.

The other issue with a book this short is that the secondary characters inevitably feel underdeveloped. I liked what we got of them, but many of the characters didn’t feel fleshed out enough and they exist to further Justyce’s story, rather than as people in their own right. This is particularly true of the female characters. Melo is more or less a plot-device and she never gets a resolution or much development beyond being a promiscuous drunk. Justyce’s mom also feels a little one-note as the poor single-mother who doesn’t approve of him dating outside his race.

None of this changes the fact that Dear Martin is still an important, and engaging read, I just found the pacing, formatting, under-developed minor characters, and young feel to the story all made it difficult for me to be as invested as I hoped I would be.

 

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Stage: Lear (Groundling Theatre Company)

Lear

Canadians pride themselves on being hardy, but already this winter is proving to be a difficult one, dumping large amounts of snow on us along with brutal subzero temperatures. In these kinds of conditions, it’s tempting to take up hibernation, but the Groundling Theatre Company’s female-fronted production of Lear makes it worth your while to leave the comforts of home.

As the second production of this play to feature a woman as Lear that I’ve seen in four months, I can’t help comparing the Groundling Theatre production to last summer’s take on a female Lear at Shakespeare in High Park. Viewing either production is enough to leave audiences ruminating over the greater meaning that can be wrung from the play simply by casting a woman as the lead. Taken together, the Groundling Theatre Company Lear and Canstage King Lear make an eloquent argument for casting a woman in the title role, if not exclusively than certainly more often.

Set in the 16th century, this summer’s CanStage production emphasized female leadership in a male-dominated world, offering fascinating commentary on how women are viewed by others, and how they choose to present themselves to inhabit traditionally male roles. Groundling Theatre’s Lear takes a more intimate approach, focusing on the relationships between mothers and daughters. Of course King Lear is very much a play about filial relationships, but this production places them at the forefront, as a mad Lear repeatedly assumes that Poor Tom’s poverty is because he has daughters. As director Graham Abbey writes in the program notes, viewing the tragedy through a maternal lens makes more poignant Lear’s reaction to perceived ingratitude. Watching a bitter female Lear curse Goneril’s womb to sterility is shocking, while the primal wails of a mother who has lost her beloved daughter in the play’s final scenes are devastating to witness.

The talented cast is composed of screen and stage veterans, including several members of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival company. Led by Seana McKenna, in a commanding performance as Lear, the diverse company excels. Mckenna’s Lear is blunt and precise in her interactions and dialogue. Her Lear is all sharpness and calculation except, as her fool points out, when it comes to her daughters. As her mind slips away, Lear’s edge dulls, revealing her underlying regret and tenderness. It’s a riveting performance to watch, although I’ll admit that I found Diana D’Aquila to be the more affecting Lear, in the Shakespeare in High Park production.

Jim Mezon is a steady and empathetic Gloucester, and Orphan Black‘s Kevin Hanchard is a marvelous Kent, demonstrating loyalty and steadfast devotion. Colin Mochrie, best known for his ongoing role on improv comedy show Whose Line Is It Anyway?, may be the company member with the least Shakespeare experience, but he’s a good fit for the honest and wise fool, delivering his lines with perfect comic timing.

Lear’s elder daughters can often seem one-note, but Diana Donnelly and Deborah Hay are two of the stronger Regan and Gonerils I’ve had the pleasure of seeing. Hay is especially interesting to watch, as she invests her character with a measure of empathy. Her Goneril seems initially to be simply a daughter at her wit’s end with a parent who is increasingly exasperating and verbally abusive, but her resolve strengthens as a play goes on. I liked Mercedes Morris, in a subtler performance, as Cordelia too. Her devotion to Lear is evident in calmly expressed pleas of faithfulness, but Morris could use to project more, as her quiet voice was sometimes lost in the Harbourfront Centre Theatre.

In a memorably villainous turn, the towering Alex McCooeye is an affable Loki-esque figure as Edmund. Undoubtedly the dangerous and destructive black sheep of the family, he’s so damn charismatic you can’t take your eyes off him. His soliloquies feel like he is speaking directly to each member of the audience, and McCooeye admirably walks the line between comedy and drama, drawing laughs from the crowd when earned yet continuing to be a threat.

As his noble brother Edgar, Antoine Yared is likable in a solid performance. However, as more theatres take on Shakespeare’s classic plays with diverse and gender-swapped casting, it’s a bit of a shame to see Edgar repeatedly approached in such a traditional way. In my view of CanStage’s production I remarked on what a shame it was to see Edmund, the villain, queer-coded when Edgar could just as easily have been portrayed as a gay character. After the Groundling Theatre Co. production, my friend remarked on the inadvertent, but unfortunate, commentary made on women rulers, as all of the female characters are dead by the end of the play with only men left on stage as the lights come down. The solution she posited was casting Edgar as a woman too; Edith, if you will. It’s an idea that has a lot of merit, and I’d love to see a production of Lear that gives this a try.

This was my first Groundling Theatre Company show, but I gather clean, simple sets, and costumes that don’t correspond with any particular time or place are hallmarks of this emerging company. The minimalist but effective stage, which is constructed of interlocking monochrome blocks that can be rearranged to give the impression of doors, or a bed works well. There are some really lovely pieces of staging in here too. I loved the scene where Gloucester cannot see a letter proving Edgar’s treachery until he wears spectacles, and where the fool has an opportunity to showcase some tricks. However, I found the costuming, which draws upon everything from a formal waistcoat and cravat to infinity scarves, hoodies, and jeans, to be an oddly lazy choice that doesn’t serve to ground the play in any particular time and fails to create a cohesive vision.

I was more taken with the choice to include a live musician, percussionist Graham Hargrove. The percussion is largely understated, but adds vital tension as needed, and gives thundering voice to Lear’s infamous storm.

With a diverse and talented cast, Groundling Theatre Company’s production of Lear offers a nuanced portrayal of mother-daughter relationships, and commentary on the challenges of being a woman in a position of power. I have some minor complaints, for example I’d prefer that the costumes grounded a show in a particular time and/or place, and while I loved the percussion, it sometimes drowned out the actors in the storm scenes, but on the whole this is a thoughtful, well-acted, Lear that’s worth leaving the warmth of your home to see.

The Groundling Theatre Company production of Lear runs until January 28th at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre.

Photo of Mercedes Morris, Seana McKenna and Colin Mochrie, by Michael Cooper

T5T: Books on my 2018 bucket list

Top 5 Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the wonderful Bionic Book Worm. This week’s topic:

JANUARY 9TH – Top 5 books on my 2018 bucket list

I’ve taken the topic to mean books that you’re prioritizing for 2018 and will absolutely, positively read this year. I’ve opted for books that were mostly hold-overs from 2017, and possibly earlier than that, some of which overlap with my 2018 reading resolutions, to read more classics and to read what I own.

272460685. Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin
Pushkin’s short novel in verse has been on my reading list for a few years now, because it’s a story I’ve seen and loved in other forms. It was while watching the National Ballet of Canada dance the classic John Cranko-choreographed adaptation of Onegin that I fell for ballet as an art form. I was spellbound by the female lead, Tatyana, who begins the ballet as a country girl who has to be dragged away from her novels to greet company and felt empowered by the end of the ballet, where Tatyana doesn’t die, but holds a position of power over the (quite frankly rather dickish) Onegin. More recently, I caught a new Canadian musical based on the story that was one of my favourite theatre experiences of the year! By now I know the elements of the plot and characters well, but like any bookish blogger, I really want to read the original!

676974. Fire From Heaven by Mary Renault
Historical fiction is one of my preferred reading genres. Several years ago, I went looking for recommendations to read some of the more foundational authors in the genre, hoping to find well-researched and well-written titles. Some I took to heart, like Sharon Kay Penman and Dorothy Dunnett, but although the name Mary Renault often came up, I’ve still never read any of her books. A few friends have told me how much I would love her works, and I even picked up Fire From Heaven and The Persian Boy at a used bookstore last year, so I have no excuse! Fortunately, owning copies just means that Fire From Heaven can count towards one of my 2018 reading resolutions, to read what I own. Although I’ve heard it’s dense, I fully expect to love this book, and I can’t wait to tackle it later this year!

AssasinsApprentice3. Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb
In 2017 Assassin’s Apprentice made a lot of my ‘series I’ve been meaning to start’, ‘top of the TBR’, kinds of lists. Yet here we are in 2018 and I STILL haven’t read it. A few book bloggers I follow made their way through the fantasy series last year and seemed to love it, and friends offline have recommended it to me, so I am determined – 2018 will be the year I finally pick up a Robin Hobb book! I actually have copies of the first few books too, thanks to a friend who permanently moved to New Zealand and gifted some of the books she couldn’t take with her to me.

320756712. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
The book everyone was talking about last year was The Hate U Give. I intended to read it. I moved up the holds list at the library. I looked forward to it, yet it never quite reached the top of my TBR, despite the raves. My only excuse is that I’m really not much of a YA Contemporary reader, but there are a few notable exceptions and I suspect this is one of them. I’m making this important book a priority for 2018, and am planning to read it in February!

110161. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
I always get the same reaction from friends when they learn that I, a former English major and current enthusiastic reader, haven’t picked up Charlotte Bronte’s masterpiece. “You haven’t read Jane Eyre?” they ask in disbelief, jaws hanging open. To be honest, I’m a little surprised too. Somehow I never encountered it in high school or university and, although Jane Eyre is one of those rare classics that seems to be beloved by its readers, I rarely read classics after completing my degree. Now, as I make a conscious effort to choose a variety of reads and tackle some of the classics though, Jane Eyre is undoubtedly at the top of my list.

Have you read any of these? What are the titles you’re prioritizing this year? Comment and let me know!

Least Favourite Books of 2017

Like many in the book blogging community, I consider reading to be a form of escape, and 2017 was a year when we all had a lot to escape from. Many of the books I read captured my imagination and took me on moving, well-plotted journeys, populated by sympathetic flawed characters. Some… did not. My favourite books of 2017 can be found here, but I’ve also compiled a list of five of my least favourite reads of the year.

The good news is that only two of the books I read this year are so egregiously bad that I’d actively discourage anyone from reading them, the other choices fall more into the category of novels that either disappointed me with their execution, or that were simply not my cup of tea. Some of my choices will likely be controversial as they are critically acclaimed, so keep in mind that this is simply one person’s opinion. These books did not appeal to me personally, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t be exactly what someone else is looking for!

349535c5. Sonora by Hannah Lillith Assadi
I feel a little bit badly about sticking Sonora on here because it’s such a clear case of a book that just was not my cup of tea. A contemporary, literary fiction work that reads like an extended fever dream, Sonora is pitched as a lyrical coming-of-age story about Ahlam, the daughter of a Palestinian refugee and his Israeli wife, and Laura, the wilder, bolder best friend. Together they move from the desert suburbs of Arizona to explore drugs, sex, and boys in New York City, but the highs and lows of the drug-fueled lifestyle threaten to destroy them both. The writing is both the best and the worst thing about Sonora. At its best, Assadi’s prose is lush and poetic, as in her descriptions of setting, from the stark Sonoran desert in Arizona to the bustle of New York City. However, I found the ornate language distracting, to the point where I read the discussion questions at the back of the book and realized that I had missed key plot and character elements because the prose was so stylized! Sonora offers little of substance and reads less like an engaging and effective novel than it does an experiment in form, devised by the author to enable her to play with imagery and language freely without being constrained by plot. As someone who reads little in the way of literary fiction, it was a slog. Putting aside the plot and form issues, Sonora is a book populated by characters who only ever feel surface deep, making it difficult to connect with them. Ultimately I was left wishing the story had been more cohesive, and that the book had drawn more on the interesting familial relationships between Ahlam and her parents, than on her more cliché connection to party girl Laura.

311451484. The Love Interest by Cale Dietrich
The Love Interest is certainly the most readable book on this list, taking me only a few hours to read cover to cover, but it’s also one of the most disappointing books I’ve encountered. The problem? It’s a textbook case of a fabulous concept executed poorly. The fault appears to lie with author Cale Dietrich who doesn’t seem to know what he wants the book to be. At times The Love Interest appears to be a straightforward satire of the traditional YA romance genre, with laugh out loud funny lines. Yet it also tries to construct an original dystopia, in which boys are groomed from childhood to be “love interests,” lifelong spies who keep tabs on potentially important people by becoming their significant other. The result is a mess of a novel that doesn’t do either of these things well.

The idea behind The Love Interest is a subversion of the traditional YA love triangle. Pitting Juliet’s two love interests, a nice boy-next-door type and a bad boy against one another to win her heart, they instead fall for one another. Sounds fascinating right? Unfortunately the in-story subversions and lamp shading of YA tropes just don’t make sense within the context of the, rather shallowly constructed, world. Take for example the Nice vs. Bad formula. Each “love interest” is rigidly groomed to fit one type or the other and one Nice and one Bad are sent after each chosen girl, yet the in-world explanation for WHY these tropes have to be adhered to is hand waved. Ultimately, I found myself asking why a lot while reading this book and never getting much in the way of satisfying answers. Despite some incredibly funny lines, the inconsistency in the storytelling, the shallowly-rendered characters, and the lack of logic in the world building add up to a book that never fulfills its potential and that fails to do justice to a terrific concept.

6352223. War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy
My first experience with classic Russian literature did not go well. I believe that somewhere in War & Peace‘s 1,300 pages there is a genuinely good four or five hundred page book, but War & Peace as it exists now is an unbalanced work. The first half of the book is stronger, offering interesting, if enigmatic, characters and wry commentary on how young men romanticize the war, but mid-way through Tolstoy abandons all pretense that he is writing a novel. The remainder of War & Peace reads like a dissertation that exists only for Tolstoy to spout his thoughts on war, The Great Man Theory, and more. Even the (100 page!) epilogue reads more like the rambling conclusion of a Masters student than a novel. There’s a brief stretch where Tolstoy remembers that he has actual characters and returns to their lives to quickly sum things up, but even this seems like an afterthought. More accurately titled War & War & War & War & War & War & Peace, it often feels like any emphasis or development of plot and characters are a digression for Tolstoy, instead of the main event. If you’re especially keen on military history I imagine War & Peace makes for a fascinating read. If not, don’t read War & Peace, read Les Miserables instead.

184678182. An Untamed State by Roxanne Gay
Roxanne Gay is a noted feminist and writer of non-fiction and I certainly don’t intend to take away from her contributions, but her debut work of fiction is, quite frankly, awful. The first half of the novel deals with Haitian-American Mireille’s abduction at gunpoint outside the walls of her father’s multi-acre estate by men seeking ransom. When her captors do not receive the sum they’re looking for, Mireille is repeatedly, and graphically raped. The remainder of the novel deals with the aftermath of this trauma. Part of my hatred for this book comes from the fact that it aims to comment on complex themes of racism, sexism, and classism, yet offers nothing of value to the conversation. Rape and trauma are subjects that should be handled with delicacy, particularly in a time when shows like Game of Thrones have been criticized for their gratuitous use of sexual violence, yet Gay’s take is upsettingly exploitative. Gay appears to be trying to create a mirroring panic in the reader during the kidnapping scenes with her use of staccato prose, but the effect is just choppy and poorly written. The dialogue is even worse, full of over-the-top, corny conversations that wouldn’t be out of place in a cheesy romance novel or a B movie. The relationship between Mireille and her husband Michael is immature at best, and the two characters appear to be in constant competition for the title of most irritating character. It doesn’t help that An Untamed State suffers from pacing issues, thrusting readers into the midst of kidnapping within the first few pages, before we have time to become invested in the characters, but my biggest issue was with the graphic depictions of Mireille’s sexual assault. It’s difficult to believe this book was even written by a woman, let alone a noted feminist, because the rape scenes are so frequent, graphic, and disturbingly voyeuristic. The ending breaks even the tenuous grip that An Untamed State had on reality with a twist that is so implausible and unnecessary that it had me rolling my eyes at the page. The only redeeming qualities here lie in Gay’s portrayal of PTSD following the kidnapping and in the fascinating, but sadly all too few, insights offered on the immigrant Haitian-American experience.

231688171. The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu
Although I found it dense and too “hard science fiction” to be my kind of book, I admired the merits of The Three Body Problem, the first book in Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy. Unfortunately, the sequel is not only dull and devoid of interesting characters, it’s also shockingly misogynistic throughout. Without going into too much detail, the book deals with an incoming alien invasion of Earth by the Trisolarans. Although their ships will not arrive for 400 years, the Trisolarans have planted subatomic particles that give them access to all human information on Earth, making it nearly impossible for humanity to form a response that the aliens will not see coming. In response, humanity appoints four “Wallfacers” and provides them with unlimited resources to design separate and secret strategies to mislead and foil the Trisolaran attack.

Cixin Liu’s strengths clearly don’t lie in character development, as his creations have so few distinguishing characteristics that they blend together into one bland, not particularly likable, type. The female characters, of which there are few, fare even worse. Liu’s women exist primarily as love interests for the male characters, who lead, make the tough decisions, and generally hold positions of importance, including all four Wallfacer appointments. Many of the female minor characters betray their husbands, leaving me to wonder if the author has some unresolved issues, and The Dark Forest opens with the womanizing protagonist unable to even remember the name of his latest fling when she is killed off! But the most offensive portrayal of all occurs in a plot that has to be read to be believed – except that no woman should ever read this book. Main character Luo Ji falls in love with an imaginary perfect woman that he has created (which his doctor describes as a totally normal experience?!) and his infatuation is so overwhelming that it destroys the only close relationship he has with a real woman. When he is appointed a Wallfacer and has the resources of the world at his disposal, he decides to use them to find a real woman who fits exactly the image he has in his head, by describing her to a bodyguard. Unbelievably, the bodyguard finds a woman who exactly matches this description, brings her to Luo Ji and they proceed to fall in love and have a child together! An impending alien invasion is more believable than this entire plotline. Throughout, the woman (Yan Yan) is infantilized, described as innocent, childlike, in need of protection, and possessing less education than our male protagonist. After they’ve been together for a few years (long enough for her to procreate), Yan Yan is quite literally fridged! The author puts her into refrigerated hibernation, along with her daughter, held as hostages against Luo Ji’s good behaviour, and they’re never heard from again. Never before have I read something so disturbingly, casually misogynistic, yet The Dark Forest holds a 4.4 rating on goodreads and has been critically acclaimed! My suspicion is that the blatant misogyny in these books is being tolerated because the author is Chinese. I’m all for diverse voices, particularly in the traditionally white male written SFF genre, but they should not come at the cost of three-dimensional female characters. Fans of Science-Fiction and Fantasy deserve better.

What were your least favorite reads of 2017? Comment and let me know!

 

 

T5W: 2018 Reading Resolutions

Top Five Wednesday is currently hosted by Sam from Thoughts on Tomes. Want to join in the fun? Check out the goodreads group!

January 3rd: 2018 Reading Resolutions: Self explanatory. Let us know 5 of your reading goals for the year.

1. Read 60 Books. This year I read 65 books, including the 1,300 page War & Peace, so I’ve set my goodreads challenge to a respectable, but not taxing, 60 books for 2017. I do a fair amount of my reading on the daily commute to work, so it should be achievable, even if I don’t have as much time to read after work and on the weekends. This goal also takes into account the fact that I have made a commitment to doing a time-consuming and challenging course for my day job. The course has to be finished by the end of November, so I need to set aside time to study, which may impact my reading habits.

2. Read what I own. I don’t tend to buy a lot of books since I have a fantastic public library system at my disposal, but over the years I’ve definitely built up a collection of titles that I mean to read but just never get around to. So far there aren’t a lot of new releases for 2018 that I’m eagerly awaiting, so it seems like an ideal year to concentrate on reading the books that I already own. The ultimate goal is to clear out some much needed bookshelf space by reading and then donating or selling back books that I know I won’t read again, and keeping only my favourites.

3. Read more classics. I made some progress towards this goal in 2017, by tackling my first-ever Russian author, Tolstoy, with War & Peace. Even though it wasn’t a particularly positive reading experience for me, I would love to use this year to read some of those books I have been meaning to read for years. High on the list of classics to try this year are Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, and John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. I’d love to tackle The Count of Monte Cristo as well, but I think I need a year to recover from War & Peace before I dive into another classic doorstopper!

4. Read outside my comfort zone. For the last few years, I have been part of an online book club that anonymously votes on member-submitted suggestions across a wide variety of genres to choose each month’s selection. I’ve realized that, for better and for worse, some of the most out there books I’ve read in the last few years have been book club selections. I loved Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Erik Larsen’s Devil in the White City in previous years, true crime and non-fiction choices that I would never have picked up on my own. Although the monthly selections have yielded some duds, like Roxanne Gay’s An Untamed State (one of my Worst Reads), Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing, and Omar El Akkad’s American War, I’ve mostly enjoyed the experience of reading new-to-me titles across a wide range of genres. Sadly the book club hasn’t been as active over the last few months and, I suspect, is over, so I may need an extra push to find and read some of these outside my genre choices going forward.

5. Participate in some reading challenges. I’m not going to fully commit to anything right now, but I would love to participate in either/or another personal reading challenge or in a book blogger reading challenge. In 2017 I committed myself to reading the nominees for Best Novel at the Hugo Awards and it was generally (see my thoughts on Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, which I couldn’t finished here) a rewarding experience. I think I’ll wait and see what my summer looks like and what’s nominated before I 100% commit, but I’m considering either doing this again, reading the Nebula nominees this time around, or taking up a challenge that will let me engage more fully with the blogging community. If there’s a challenge you think I’d be interested in, ping-back here or let me know in the comments!

What are your reading goals for this year? Let me know in the comments!

 

Best Books of 2017

It’s that time of year again, when we go through the nail-biting process of sorting through our goodreads shelves and blog reviews to compile a list of the year’s best books! Although I fell short of my personal record for number of books read in a single year (hitting 65 versus 79 in 2016), I’m mollified by the fact that this figure includes the 1,300 page behemoth that is War & Peace (sadly appearing not on this list, but among my Worst Reads of 2017). This list of my favourite books of 2017 includes both books that were published this year and older titles that I read for the first time in 2017.

Honourable mentions (in alphabetical order): The Absolutist by John Boyne, And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie, If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera, and Now I Rise by Kirsten White.

3407695210. The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo
To be honest, this list should be more of a Top 9. Any one of my honourable mentions above could easily also fill this final slot of my favourite books for 2017, but I’ve opted for a Leigh Bardugo’s The Language of Thorns, an imaginative collection of short stories set in the same universe as her Grisha trilogy and Six of Crows duology. I’m usually not a huge fan of fairy tales, or of short stories, and yet The Language of Thorns held me in thrall like the King by Scheherazade. The six tales highlight Bardugo’s keen storytelling ability as she uses stock characters and tropes, but twists them in unique and unexpected ways. I found the stories where she draws inspiration from existing properties to be more effective than her wholly original tales, but all six of these stories are worth reading, and are notable for the diversity they organically incorporate. Special mention must be made of the gorgeous illustrations by Sara Kipin, which frame the pages of each story in vibrant teal and red patterns and designs, that grow and change over the course of the tale.

“Bad fates do not always follow those who deserve them.”

253532869. Provenance by Ann Leckie
Looking at the other science-fiction entries on my list this year, I’m definitely sensing a pattern. It turns out I like my sci-fi less intense and more intimate and character-driven. Ann Leckie’s Provenance fits the bill with this intelligent, and hard to classify, standalone novel that’s part political thriller, part mystery, and part coming-of-age story. Provenance is set among the Hwae, a people who place enormous significance on “vestiges”, documents and artifacts that commemorate a specific event of personal or historical importance. When the narrative reveals that many of the vestiges that the Hwae hold dear are actually fakes, Leckie uses this to pose questions about the way we document historical events. Does a document need to be genuine to be important? Or can it gain significance through what it represents, even if it is based on a lie? As a Librarian who took a number of Archives classes in grad school, I kind of loved this book. Although naive and privileged, protagonist Ingray Aughskold is an immensely likable and resourceful heroine, and the supporting characters are equally well-written. Ultimately, Provenance is a deeply satisfying coming of age story about finding your place and your family, and about recognizing that the road everyone expects you to take is not always the right one.

“’I had never really thought about it that way before. Who are we if our vestiges aren’t real?’
‘You never really thought of it before because nobody has ever really questioned your being who you say you are. No one has ever told you your own vestiges are false, or that they mean you’re not really entirely Hwaean.'”

255288018. Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston
Loosely based on Shakespeare’s play The Winter’s Tale, and taking its name from the famous stage direction, Exit, Pursued by a Bear is the rare YA contemporary novel that stuck with me. During a party at summer cheerleading camp, someone slips something in co-captain Hermione’s drink and she blacks out. The novel deftly depicts the lead up to, and aftermath of, the rape, as Hermione tries to figure out how to move on with her life. There are a million ways in which this book could have been a disaster and/or a cliche, but Exit, Pursued by a Bear differs from other rape survivor stories by providing Hermione with a strong support system of friends and family. The novel doesn’t sugarcoat the assault or the aftermath, but Johnston’s story is primarily about regaining agency after it is stolen from you. Figuratively and literally Johnston puts the power back into Hermione’s hands in this insightful examination of strength and support in the face of trauma.

“If you think I’m going to apologize for being drugged and raped, you have another thing coming.”

AncillarySword7. Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
After a lengthy stay on my TBR, I finally got around to reading Ann Leckie’s critically acclaimed Imperial Radch series this year and yes, it was every bit as wonderful as I had hoped. The first volume, Ancillary Justice, pitted Breq, a blunt centuries-old spaceship AI inhabiting a single human ancillary body, against the powerful Lord of the Radch in a high stakes quest for vengeance. I expected the second book in this trilogy to be an action-packed continuation of the saga, but what I got was something much rarer. Ancillary Sword focuses in on a single planet for an intimate, thoughtful sequel that delivers both subtle character development and sharp social commentary. Much of the book explores themes of identity, power, and privilege, delivering a pointed critique of colonialism. All this is wrapped up in a package that includes some of the most unique and detailed world-building I’ve ever encountered, characters I adored, and some genuinely moving moments. I cannot recommend this series highly enough.

“You take what you want at the end of a gun, you murder and rape and steal, and you call it bringing civilization. And what is civilization, to you, but us being properly grateful to be murdered and raped and stolen from? You said you knew justice when you heard it. Well, what is your justice but you allowed to treat us as you like, and us condemned for even attempting to defend ourselves?”

2qir5w76. A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
I went back and forth over whether to include both of Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers books in the same entry on this list, but ultimately bumped her debut, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet to my Honorable Mentions, because as much as I loved its series of vignettes about the diverse crew of a spaceship, it was the standalone sequel, A Closed and Common Orbit, that blew me away. Told through alternating chapters, this science-fiction novel consists of parallel narratives. The primary story follows the ship’s AI formerly known as Lovelace as she adjusts to life in an artificial body that was never meant for her and grapples with issues of identity. Twenty years in the past, the secondary storyline follows a ten-year-old girl created as part of a slave class for labour. Despite never seeing the sky before, she takes advantage of an industrial accident to escape the factory and spends her teenage years building a way off the planet. I found it incredibly empowering to read about two women from tragic pasts who start over, gain autonomy, and shape their own identities, quite literally naming themselves. The imagination on display here, particularly in the creation of alien species, is something to behold, and I loved the positive message represented in the idea that the families and friendships you choose are every bit as, if not more, important than romantic love.

“It was hard to play it cool when you wore your heart on your face.”

362368035. Swansong by Vale Aida
When I read Elegy, the first volume of the Magpie Ballad duology, last year, it felt like it had been written for me. The Dorothy Dunnett-esque style of writing, intricate plotting, and complicated, enigmatic, flawed characters combined to make a fantasy novel I wholeheartedly adored. I just finished Swansong last night, so you can expect a full review singing its praises in the next couple of days, but suffice it to say that it lived up to my sky high expectations. This was one of those books where I was torn between wanting to finish right away and see how everything was resolved, and putting it off because I couldn’t bare to say goodbye to the characters I so loved. Set in Cassarah, a country on the brink of war with neighbouring Sarei, disgraced actor-cum-soldier Savonn Silvertongue returns to face his nemesis and one-time lover The Empath. Meanwhile, his closest friends Hiraen and Iyone Safin engage in their own struggle to defend the city, but it’s only a matter of time before they too are wrapped up in Savonn’s spiderweb of intrigue and their secrets are dragged into the light. I can’t count the number of times I felt my heart seize in my chest as I read certain scenes. The characters, even the villains, are rendered with depth and pathos, and I felt invested in the relationships between them, be they romantic, familial, or platonic. I also loved that lesbian and gay characters and relationships figure so prominently in the text. The prose is witty and elegant, the pace maintained throughout, and Vale Aida wraps up her duology in a deeply satisfying way that gives each of the characters resolution.

“‘People would believe anything about you as long as it was scandalous enough. But it’s all lies, isn’t it?’
‘You ridiculous pastry,’ said Savonn. He sounded almost tender. ‘Is that what you think?'”

15q8eaf4. The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
I have never been more quickly hooked and reeled in by a book than I was by Katherine Arden’s enthralling debut. The quintessential winter read, The Bear and the Nightingale makes me want to curl up under a warm blanket with a cup of tea and watch the snow fall outside. The story is based on medieval Russian folklore and mythology, and tells the tale of the winter king and Vasilisa, a brave and wild, yet compassionate, maiden. Arden’s prose is lyrical and compelling, and her writing appeals to the senses so strongly that I could almost feel the residual warmth from the family’s giant oven. Most of all though, I loved Vasilisa. She’s a tremendous heroine. Vasilisa is striking and direct, yet she is also kind, doing all she can to help the household spirits, the horses her family owns, and to the other members of her family. This means that she is often caught between doing what is expected of her as a woman and doing what she knows to be right. Magical and atmospheric, The Bear and the Nightingale is a book that I will remember for years to come, and I wouldn’t be surprised if, every winter when snow covers the ground, I feel a pull to re-read.

“Now hear me. Before the end, you will pluck snowdrops at midwinter, die by your own choosing, and weep for a nightingale.”

AConjuringOfLight3. A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab
When it comes to epic stories I need them to have consequences. I love books where the characters are irrevocably altered by what they have experienced, and Schwab delivers on this, bringing the Shades of Magic trilogy to a satisfying conclusion in A Conjuring of Light. Continuing the saga of Kell Maresh, a magic user who can travel across four parallel, but unique, Londons (Black, White, Red, and Grey), the stakes feel higher this time, as Kell’s vibrant, magic-filled, Red London home is threatened. I adore the world building in this series, the way in which each London is differentiated from its counterparts, and, like Narnia, the Shire, or Hogwarts, I found myself wishing that I could slip into Red London and explore its night market. Tension is maintained throughout the novel for a story that kept me on the edge of my seat, but the greatest draw here is Schwab’s tremendously likable cast of characters. Bidding goodbye, or at least Anoshe, to Lila, Kell, Rhy, and Alucard early this year was certainly bittersweet, so I’m thrilled to know that Schwab will be writing additional stories in this world!

“There were a hundred shades between a truth and lie, and she knew them all.”

Right up until the moment I hit publish, I kept changing my mind about which of my favourite two books of the year would land the coveted spot at the top of my list. In another five minutes I’ll probably change my mind again, so this is virtually a tie. Suffice it to say that both of my choices are books that I highly recommend!

Pachinko2. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Following four generations of the Baeks, a Korean family, through the twentieth century, this historical epic depicts the discrimination and hardship faced by ethnic Koreans, known as “Zainichi” (or foreign residents), living in Japan. As someone who knew very little about Japanese-Korean relations, or the history of both countries, I found the novel incredibly interesting and informative, but it’s the immensely likable, hard-working characters who make this novel so special. The Baek family’s story is one of survival and of sacrifice in order to provide a better life for the next generation. I adored the entire cast of characters, from kindly Hoonie, a cleft-palated fisherman, and his resilient daughter Sunja, to earnest Christian missionary Isak, and sister Kyunghee, who provides a lightness to the novel and to Sunja’s life. Lee’s elegant prose richly captures the myriad of different settings, from the small Korean fishing village where Sunja is born to Japanese cities, and although Pachinko is nearly 500 pages, it’s perfectly paced, so the novel never feels long. Months later, Pachinko has stuck with me; I still find myself thinking about the characters and the journeys they undergo, and I know this is a book that I will want to re-read in the future. I was profoundly moved by the story, which was by turns heartbreaking and inspiring, and by Min Jin Lee’s deft exploration of home and cultural identity in a way that’s both accessible and engaging.

“Living everyday in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage”

332532151. The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
From the very first page of John Boyne’s sweeping saga about growing up in twentieth century Ireland as a gay man, the black humour and engaging style of writing enthralled me. The first-person narration by Cyril Avery is hilarious, poignant, and even tragic as it deals with such heavy topics as the hypocrisy of the Irish Catholic Church, homosexuality in twentieth century Ireland, adoption, and AIDS, yet the author’s masterful balance of humour and drama keeps the The Heart’s Invisible Furies from feeling like a tragedy. John Boyne has a gift for writing characters who are monumentally flawed, yet incredibly sympathetic. I may not have agreed with the choices Cyril makes throughout the novel, yet I understood the reasoning behind them and continued to root for him, because he acts without cruelty of intent. More than any other novel this year, The Heart’s Invisible Furies held me in its thrall. I COULD NOT PUT IT DOWN, finishing the 580 page hardcover in just a few days and reading well into the night! The pacing is swift, the characters funny, flawed, and engaging, and the tragedy tempered with a sense of humour that had me literally laughing out loud, although the moving narration also had me in tears of a different kind before the end.

“’You look like a Greek God sent down by the immortal Zeus from Mount Olympus to taunt the rest of us inferior beings with your astonishing beauty,’ I said, which somehow in translation came out as ‘you look fine, why?’”

I’d love to know your thoughts! Have you read any of these books, or are you planning to? What were your favourite books of 2017? Please comment and let me know!

Books: The Absolutist

13414716The Absolutist by John Boyne
Published July 10, 2012
star-4-half
John Boyne’s The Absolutist may not have absolutely wrecked me, as his The Heart’s Invisible Furies did earlier this year, but it’s no less moving a tale. Told in the first person, the story is set in 1919 as twenty-one-year-old Tristan Sadler embarks on a long-delayed errand to deliver letters written by Will Bancroft, a man he served alongside during the Great War, to his sister Marian in Norwich. Flashbacks explore the relationship between these two men, as Tristan’s ulterior motive for delivering the letters in person is slowly revealed.

Boyne’s efficient yet compelling prose is deceptively simple; He examines complex feelings and themes, including guilt, shame, courage, and cowardice in clear and carefully chosen words that left me reflecting on them long after I finished the book. Each word, in fact, seems perfectly chosen for what Boyne is trying to convey, and the true-to-life dialogue is a highlight. At just over 300 pages, The Absolutist is a quick read, but the pacing never lags or feels too fast.

Perhaps Boyne’s greatest skill is his ability to create monumentally flawed characters who we care about. Tristan is one such character. Cyril in The Heart’s Invisible Furies another. Both are fundamentally human. They experience jealousy, betrayal, and make impulsive choices that will impact their lives, and the lives of those around them, forever, yet are written with such sympathy and compassion that you can’t help but root for them. Supporting characters, particularly Marian Bancroft, are no less engaging.

World War I and II settings are usually more of a detractor than a draw for me, so I worried that the novel might rely too heavily on descriptions of battle or on the gory aftermath. The Absolutist avoids those traps, focusing more on the initial training Tristan undergoes before shipping out, and then on both the day-to-day lives of soldiers in the trenches and the sense of loss as Tristan’s regiment loses more and more men over the course of the war. The result is a subtle, but effective, examination of the cost of war, both physically and emotionally, on soldiers and on their families and loved ones left behind.

It’s a poignant, even haunting, read that will definitely stay with me, yet The Absolutist didn’t wreck me in the same way that The Heart’s Invisible Furies did. This may be because I went into John Boyne’s first novel completely blind, while my expectations this time were sky high, having read, and cried over, his work previously. I also found The Absolutist to be somewhat more predictable, and guessed some aspects of the plot well before the novel’s climax, which diminished my emotional response. Still, The Absolutist ultimately wounds, with one scene in particular landing like a well-placed punch to the gut.

Once more John Boyne delivers a story sure to move even the most stone-hearted of readers. It’s a little rougher than The Heart’s Invisible Furies perhaps, but contains the same compelling prose and sympathetic, flawed characters, cementing Boyne as a must-read author for me. I look forward to delving further into his catalog of works in 2018.

Books: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns

33958230Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao
Published October 10, 2017
star-3-half
I’m in the minority here but I’ve never been a big fan of fairy stories, so retellings aren’t usually a genre that interests me. Mythology and general trope twisting yes, fairy tales not so much. Perhaps this explains why Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, which charmed so many other readers, left me cold. Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, an East-Asian inspired fantasy retelling of The Evil Queen, may not have swept me off my feet, but it’s a very solid debut from author Julie C. Dao. Featuring an unabashedly ruthless anti-heroine, and a richly imagined world that draws inspiration from Chinese mythology, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns subtly sets in place all the building blocks of the Snow White mythos, ensuring readers will eagerly await the second book in this planned trilogy.

Raised in a poor rural village by her abusive Aunt, the witch Guma, eighteen-year-old Xifeng has always known that she was destined for greater things. Xifeng applies herself to studying art, music, and poetry, so that she has the markings of a well-born lady, and dreams of the day when she will be Empress of Feng Lu, as Guma’s cards have foretold. When an opportunity presents itself, she flees Guma’s cruel home with her childhood lover Wei, taking the first steps towards her destiny. But the palace is full of antagonistic eunuchs and conniving concubines and Xifeng will need all her beauty and wits to claw her way to the top.

Xifeng is an intriguing protagonist. Unabashedly ruthless, she’s not a likable character as she plots her way into the palace, reigning Empress Lihua’s good graces, and even into the orbit of the Emperor. Yet she’s striking. Few YA protagonists are anti-heroes in the way that Xifeng is allowed to be here, and even fewer young women. Xifeng’s background of poverty and abuse, and the fact that she has been brought up since birth to believe that she is destined to become Empress of Feng Lu make her climb to power understandable. Even though I didn’t always agree with the choices she made, I couldn’t help but admire Xifeng’s determination, her ruthlessness, and her ability.

In fact, I enjoyed most of the characters. Traveling companion Shiro, a dwarf ambassador of Kamatsu, is kind and capable, Empress Lihua is rendered with grace and sympathy, and the Emperor has an intelligent, yet intimidating, presence. I wish that some of the more villainous characters (besides Guma, the parasitic unhealthy relationship between her and Xifeng is a strength of the novel) has been depicted with more depth though, for the eunuchs only ever seem surface deep, and I had the same issue with the cold and vain principal concubine, Lady Sun.

I loved the refreshingly diverse East Asia-inspired setting of the five kingdoms of Feng Lu though. Drawing on Chinese and Japanese influences, the world feels unique, albeit a little claustrophobic (as much of the narrative takes place in just two locations – Xifeng’s peasant village and the palace). Instead of European folklore and gods, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns introduces us to a serpent god, and to the tengaru, demon guardians of the forest.

With a tale as well-known (and Disney-fied) as “Snow White”, I feared that the author would fall into the trap of heavy-handed references, but Dao has an admirably subtle hand. Although she sets in place all the pieces for the sequel, including a kind dwarf character, an exiled princess, and Xifeng’s vanity about her appearance, these references to “Snow White” never impede the book. Forest of a Thousand Lanterns also owes a great deal to the original Brothers Grimm story, as its a deliberately darker, bloodier, and even gory retelling.

For all that I loved about this novel, I did have some issues with it, which account for my 3.5 star rating. First of all, the pacing is off. I suspect the book is such a slow starter because Dao felt she must spend time depicting Xifeng’s background and her awful home life in order to have the reader sympathize with and understand her motivations. It’s an understandable choice, but the result is a novel that drags in the beginning and feels long, despite it’s reasonable under 400 page count.

What really fell flat though was the supposed romance. The relationship between Xifeng and Wei is meant to be unbalanced, but I found it completely one-sided and had trouble believing that Xifeng cared about Wei at all beyond seeing him as a means to an end, a placeholder until greater things came along. It’s an interesting way of depicting a romantic pairing, to have a male character who is more invested in a relationship than the heroine, especially in YA – traditionally a very romance-centric genre of fiction, but the narrative doesn’t fully commit to this point of view. Instead the book appears to emphasize Xifeng sacrificing Wei for power and position, when she never actually seems very conflicted about her decision.

Those who enjoy complicated female characters, unique retellings, and diverse worlds with a dose of darkness will love Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, and even those, like me, who aren’t big fans of the Snow White-Evil Queen fairy tale will find this debut compelling. It’s a solid effort and I look forward to seeing where Xifeng’s story goes next.