Books: On Chesil Beach

815309On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
Published March 23, 2007
star-4
Quietly moving in its simplicity, On Chesil Beach is a short but poignant novel about how one moment can irrevocably shape the lives of two people.

On Chesil Beach tells an outwardly simple story of a pair of young lovers on their honeymoon in 1962. The romantic weekend should be a joyous occasion but, constrained by propriety,  Florence and Edward are plagued by a series of miscommunications that quickly derail their honeymoon. Florence is what we would now call a sex-repulsed asexual woman, but of course in a time before sexual liberation, she has no label, no reference for what she feels. Believing her distaste for sexual intimacy with her partner to be a personal failing, she suffers in silence until, in a fatal moment, she can’t hide her disgust any longer.

Edward is no less sympathetic. It’s apparent as the honeymoon unfolds, and in flashbacks to his courtship of Florence, that he loves her, but lacking context for Florence’s reactions (her muscles are tense because she’s disgusted and ashamed and steeling herself to be touched in a way that she doesn’t desire), he draws the wrong conclusion, mistaking her tension for excitement.

It’s impossible to read this book without getting swept up in the tragedy; Certainly my overwhelming emotion throughout was a deeply felt sympathy towards the characters, both of whom are a product of their time. In the years before the sexual revolution challenged traditional codes of behaviour, Florence and Edward are burdened by their inexperience. Unable to talk openly with one another about their feelings, desires, and expectations, they both suffer as a result.

McEwan’s prose is gorgeous as it communicates the innermost thoughts of Florence and Edward, as well as the circumstances that have shaped each character. Yet I can’t say that On Chesil Beach blew me away and I suspect the story won’t have a long lasting impact on me. Maybe it’s simply a matter of genre preference, since I tend to prefer historical epics and fantasy novels to literary fiction. Regardless, On Chesil Beach may not be my favourite book this year but it’s well worth picking up and immersing yourself in this melancholic read for a few hours.

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Books: Tin Man

36676536Tin Man by Sarah Winman
Published May 15, 2018
star-5
Tin Man is a quiet, but deeply moving novel about the relationship between two men. I didn’t expect to be as touched by the story as I was; It snuck up on me, unfolding slowly, patiently until before I knew it this tiny, thoughtful book had imprinted itself on my heart forever.

Telling the story of two childhood friends, Michael and Ellis, who for a brief time were romantically involved, Tin Man begins with Ellis alone and barely holding it together after the death of his wife. We’re left to wonder where Michael is and what’s become of him in the intervening years. Non-linear scenes piece together the story, which is told first from Ellis’ point of view and then finally from Michael’s.

In a novel like this the characters are everything, and Winman has created a cast of incredibly human major and minor characters. I adored Michael, Ellis, Annie, and Mabel, and selfishly wished that I could spend more time with them but, as someone with a tendency to overwrite, I admire Tin Man all the more for being exactly as long as it needed to be and no longer. It is a masterpiece of brevity.

Winman’s prose is deceptively simple, but evocative. Each word seems to be perfectly placed to tell the story in a compassionate and delicate voice. Tin Man is admittedly more literary than my tastes usually run, but so vivid and quietly heartbreaking that I find it difficult to imagine a reader not won over by its charms.

Often the books that wreck me, that leave me emotionally compromised, are longer than Tin Man. They’re immensely readable, but measure four hundred, five hundred, even six hundred pages in length. Tin Man did it in just over two hundred pages. I was left teary-eyed and physically aching by the end of the book, while at the same time overwhelmed with warm thoughts through the quiet moments of humanity and kindness that Tin Man depicts. A poignant exploration of love, loss, grief, and absence, Tin Man packs an emotional punch and is undoubtedly the best book that I’ve read in 2018 so far.

Books: Treasure Island

1326420Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
first published January 28, 1882
star-2
After visiting the Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh, it seemed only natural that I should continue my challenge to read more classics with one of the best loved Scottish authors. Let’s be honest though, the main reason why I chose Treasure Island is because my favourite television show, Black Sails, acts as a loose prequel to the events of Stevenson’s adventure story.

In the novel, Jim Hawkins discovers a map among the effects of an old sailor, who dies while staying at the Hawkins’ family inn. Deducing that the map leads to the location where the infamous pirate Captain Flint buried his treasure, the local physician and district squire buy a ship, gather a crew, and set sail. However, the crew turn out to be former pirates from Flint’s crew and plot a mutiny against the honest men.

Sounds interesting right? Wrong! No book about pirates written for children should be this dull! I can understand why Treasure Island would capture the imagination of readers in the nineteenth century but this is one classic that the years have not treated kindly. Never before has 187 pages felt so long!

The biggest problem is that Treasure Island is written in over-descriptive prose that robs the narrative of any sense of urgency or tension. The stakes are never high enough to feel as though there’s any real danger, and the dialogue is filled with nautical slang to the point where it’s difficult to understand what the characters are actually saying.

With the possible exception of Jim Hawkins, the boy narrator, the characters are thinly written. The most enduring character is, understandably, Silver, who shows some promise in his jovial persona but underlying self-interest. Silver unfortunately doesn’t have a large enough role to save this novel though.  It’s easy to see why Treasure Island has been adapted successfully, but the source material does not stand the test of time. It’s particularly distressing that Treasure Island is recommended to pre-teen and teenage boys, who are often among the most reluctant readers.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s influence on the depiction of pirates in pop culture cannot be underestimated. Treasure Island created many pirate tropes including X marks the spot, Long John Silver with his parrot, and nautical slang. These have been cemented in our minds through its various adaptations from more traditional films to new classics like Muppet Treasure Island. This contribution to pirate lore is Treasure Island‘s legacy. Stevenson has created a foundation on which more in-depth and engaging pirate stories can grow for future generations. My advice? Leave Treasure Island on the shelf and enjoy the media it’s inspired instead.

Books: Let’s Talk About Love

31625039Let’s Talk About Love by Claire Kann
Published January 23, 2018
star-3-half
Protagonist Alice is a black, teenage, biromantic asexual student who’s still trying to figure herself out. Her parents are pushing her towards a career she isn’t interested in, and Alice’s two best friends are heading towards marriage, making her feel like a third wheel. Then there’s the icing on the cake; her last girlfriend believed that Alice’s lack of desire for sex translated into a lack of love and broke up with her. She’s understandably reluctant about pursuing romantic relationships, but when Alice’s new coworker at the library exceeds her colour-coded scale of attractiveness (her Cutie Code™ ) she begins to question everything.

YA contemporary really isn’t my genre. When Alice introduced her Cutie Code™ in the first few chapters, my first thought was, ‘oh here we go’, and I steeled myself for a sickeningly fluffy romance. While Let’s Talk About Love‘s vibe is definitely a little cutesy for my personal tastes, it’s an enjoyable, realistic, and refreshing addition to the still disappointingly slim selection of books where asexuality is represented.

The plot is admittedly thin. Let’s Talk About Love focuses more on Alice’s character development and her interpersonal problems, than it does a broader storyline, but putting aside Alice’s sexuality for a moment, the subplots of well-intentioned but overbearing parents pushing their child into a career she doesn’t want, and of increasingly feeling like the third wheel in a friendship are incredibly relatable and will appeal to readers. The novel also directly (sometimes a little too directly in a way that feels more like a PSA than an organic conversation) tackles some of the misconceptions that asexuals face and challenges the idea that sex is required in order to have a romantic, loving relationship.

This quote alone, said by a therapist to Alice, is worth half a star!

“My advice to you is to be prepared to educate. It may feel unfair that the onus of that responsibility will fall on you, but when most people think the A stands for Ally, you will have to speak louder, with bravery and dignity, to be heard. You will have to be willing to inform and to educate. And you will have to know when it is time to remove yourself from situations and disconnect from those who either do not understand or are unwilling to.”

Alice herself is a delight. She’s not without flaws – her relationship with her two closest friends is codependent to say the least and she has a tendency to ignore her problems rather than confronting them – but she’s also bubbly, thoughtful, and compassionate. I rooted for her throughout, and I loved that she’s not just an asexual woman, but a black, biromantic asexual woman. I also really enjoyed her love interest Takumi, a kindergarten teacher who is patient and loves to cook.

Although I wasn’t overwhelmed by the book, I can’t tell you how thrilled I am that it exists! There are so few depictions of asexuality in fiction and in the media that every time I see a book or television show with an ace character it feels like a triumph for a community whose biggest issue is erasure.

Books: Runaways – Find Your Way Home

35249910Runaways, Vol. 1: Find Your Way Home
Written by Rainbow Rowell, Illustrated by Kris Anka
star-4
What a delight it is to see my favourite Marvel comics characters reunited and back in action! Acclaimed YA author Rainbow Rowell’s revival of Marvel’s Runaways, a title that was cancelled in 2007, is a promising debut that will leave readers wanting more.

I usually don’t review graphic novels because, with the exception of contained stories like Watchmen or Marvel 1602, it feels a bit like reviewing a third of a novel. The trade paperbacks (or ‘trades’) that I read often collect six issues of an ongoing comic series. Sure there may be a contained arc in there, but there are often also plotlines, and character development that take place over a longer period and it seems unfair to review something incomplete.

I couldn’t quite help myself when it comes to Runaways though for a few reasons:

1) This is my FAVOURITE comics series of all time. It’s the only series I’ve cared enough about to make special trips to a comic book store to buy individual issues.

2) In 2007 the title was indefinitely postponed. The characters were split up and appeared only occasionally and separately in other Marvel titles. I’ve literally been whining about this cancellation for eight years.

3) In the current push for diversity in fiction, Runaways is even more relevant than it was when first published. It’s a team of teenagers who talk and act like teenagers, and who represent diverse backgrounds. In what other series could you find a lesbian alien who glows like a rainbow and flies, a genius latino cyborg, an overweight agnostic jewish girl and her genetically engineered dinosaur, all led by a Japanese-American witch?

and 4) This revival is being penned by a popular YA author, so it may be of interest to the book blogging community.

So how does Rainbow Rowell’s first arc for Runaways fare? Arguably the first several issues are the most challenging because Rowell is faced with the task of believably reassembling a team of characters who have been apart for several months, moved on, changed, and (in some cases) even died. So I was pleasantly surprised by just how smooth the transition was! Rowell captures the essence of each of the Runaways, showcasing their insecurities and what makes them so likeable. Most of the characters have gone through some changes, yet they remain recognizable and the growth feels organic.

In the world of comics there is certainly precedent for bringing back deceased characters, but Runaways has always had a more grounded feel to it, despite the super-powers. With the exception of a few early issues where the teenagers struggled with identity, there are no costumes and no superhero names here, just a well-meaning group of teens trying to atone for some of the sins of their supervillain parents. Without spoiling anything, I worried a little about whether a resurrection would cheapen the original death scene, and was pleased to find that it didn’t. There’s still a sense of loss and a pervasive bittersweet feeling to the scene that made it work for me.

Although I had some quibbles when I saw the initial designs for each character in this book (particularly Chase and his manbun), I actually really enjoyed the art style once I got used to it.

For those who’ve never read Runaways before but are debating jumping aboard, there are enough notes in the narration to make reading this volume possible without context, but I’d recommend backtracking and reading the original issues either first or at the same time as Rowell’s continuation to fully understand and appreciate the characters and the series.

I’m so thrilled to have Runaways back in comic stores and can’t wait to see where the series goes next!

 

Books: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

32620332The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Published June 13, 2017
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When reclusive film star Evelyn Hugo is finally ready to tell the story of her life, her loves, and her rise to fame, she requests unknown magazine reporter Monique Grant for the job. No one is more shocked than Monique, but she’s determined to use this opportunity to jumpstart her career. However, as Evelyn’s story unfolds, it becomes clear that her life intersects with Monique’s in tragic and inescapable ways.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is a very human story. From the messy imperfectness of its relationships to its flawed, but deeply compelling characters, everything in the novel feels real and raw, particularly when set against the surface-deep glamour of Hollywood in the mid-twentieth century.

At the center of the narrative is the titular Evelyn Hugo, a fictional film star reminiscent of Elizabeth Taylor. A complex anti-heroine, Evelyn is not always likable. In fact she’s often not, displaying a ruthless pragmatism when it comes to doing what she believes she must to protect herself and her career. She’s also completely unapologetic about the decisions she’s made to get ahead. Although her actions sometimes fall into a moral grey area, I always understood what was behind Evelyn’s choices. The secondary characters are every bit as nuanced, flawed, and sympathetic as Evelyn. They interact as friends, rivals, and lovers, sometimes all three at once, revealing a complex stew of emotions from jealousy to pride. I simply couldn’t get enough of Taylor Jenkins Reid’s characters or of her vision of Hollywood!

As with Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, I was so drawn in by the richly described fictional films and the quality of the performances that I wanted to dash out and watch them! What I wouldn’t give to see Evelyn Hugo play Jo in Little Women and to see her friend/rival Celia’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Beth!

I wasn’t quite as bowled over by this novel as some of my blogging friends, but I suspect this is mostly a case of right novel-wrong time. I brought The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo with me on vacation, and while I enjoyed reading it when I had the chance, I wasn’t as immersed in the world because I kept having to put it down to venture out of my room and explore. Ultimately Evelyn Hugo was overshadowed by the fabulous sights I was seeing. Nonetheless I loved this surprising novel and especially its complicated, compelling anti-heroine. It’s definitely worth picking up, especially if you have a weekend free to completely lose yourself in the rich detail of Evelyn’s memories.

Books: Confessions

19161835Confessions by Kanae Minato, translated by Stephen Snyder
Published August 19, 2014
star-4
When I read Kanae Minato’s second novel to be translated into English, Penance, this winter, I found it an engaging thriller, but one that relied too heavily on coincidence to be truly believable. Confessions bears a lot of similarities, a surprising number really, but is an altogether darker and more twisted reading experience. With first person chapters told not only from perspectives of those impacted by the crime, but also the murderers themselves, Minato constructs another compelling tale of revenge.

I was hooked pretty quickly from the first chapter, in which middle grade teacher Yuko Moriguchi announces to the class that she is retiring from teaching and then proceeds to explain that her four-year-old daughter was recently murdered by two of her students. The chapter ends with a twist so disturbing that I gasped out loud and immediately wanted to know what happened next!

With each chapter in the book, Minato switches first person narrators, moving onto a classmate and then a family member of one of the murderers before we get the perspectives of the two students. Although I didn’t find the chapters told from the murderers’ POVs to be the strongest overall, Minato cleverly maintains tension before imparting some answers about the students’ motivations for the murder and their thoughts during the aftermath.

Although to a certain extent I expect books by an author to have stylistic and maybe even plot similarities, I was surprised by just how similar Minato’s novels are. Both deal with the aftermath of a child’s death on school property and the mother’s desire for revenge. Both are told through multiple perspectives and focus on the consequences of an action, and both stories shock with their twists and turns. In this case I found Penance and Confessions differed enough to keep me interested (and I actually preferred Confessions, finding it to be a tighter and more believable book), but I wonder how often Minato can repeat this formula before it grows tired.

Books: Leah on the Offbeat

31180248Leah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli
Published April 24, 2018
star-4
In Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, Becky Albertalli not only gave us an incredibly sweet gay romance, she also created a close-knit group of friends who are diverse, emotional, dramatic, and, most importantly, believably teenage. Arguably the hardest to understand was complicated, prickly Leah Burke. Leah on the Offbeat puts the burgeoning drummer front and center in this sweet, but angsty, story of self-discovery set against the emotional backdrop that is senior year.

As in the previous Creekwood/Simonverse books, Albertalli captures the teenage experience so well. I’m definitely not a teenager anymore, but the pop-culture filled dialogue, emphasis on social media, and the messy emotional space of trying to decide if you have a crush on someone or are just flattered to be liked, rang true for me. I also couldn’t help smiling at the DRAMA of it all! I’m sure all of us remember stressing about problems or situations that felt all-important at the time, but in retrospect really weren’t all that big of a deal.

Like Albertalli’s other books, Leah on the Offbeat can be broadly classed as YA drama with a fluffy ending. Leah herself may be a more cynical (although no less oblivious) narrator than Simon Spier, and she’s less inclined to wear her heart on her sleeve, but the various tangled plot threads all wrap up neatly into an ending that will no doubt satisfy fans of the characters.

Often the most intriguing fictional characters are those that really don’t have it all together yet, and that definitely describes Leah Burke. Her narrative voice is sarcastic, stubborn, and completely unapologetic, but underneath her take-no-shit exterior, she’s kind of a confused mess – particularly when it comes to her feelings. What’s so interesting about Leah on the Offbeat is how Albertalli manages to craft a story in which the reader often knows more about the first-person narrator’s emotional state than the protagonist does! Yes, it takes awhile for Creekwood High’s “resident fat Slytherin Rory Gilmore” to realize that she has a crush on someone who is definitely-totally-probably-maybe not? off limits.

Although romance is once again a major part of the plot, and I’m thrilled to see young bisexual women gaining some much needed representation, to be honest I was more invested in Leah Burke’s personal journey. If something isn’t perfect then Leah withdraws completely, likely in an attempt to fend off rejection. It’s incredibly relatable. How many times have I rewritten reviews striving to find the perfect word until it’s published so far after the fact that it’s no longer relevant? Watching Leah accept that things don’t have to be perfect, that things can have imperfections but still hold value, was really special.

I’m not normally a seasonal reader, but Leah on the Offbeat strikes me as the perfect Spring/Summer book. From the colourful cover to the bittersweet goodbyes of senior year within, this is a book that’s meant to be read outside. It may not have grabbed me in quite the same way as the first book in the series, but if you’re invested in the lives of Simon, Leah, Blue, Abby, and everyone at Creekwood High, like I am, it’s definitely worth reading.