This is Not My Life, by Diane Schoemperlen

notmylifeThe short version of This is Not My Life (which is, in fact, writer Schomperlen’s life over a period of several years) is intriguing from the start: how does a Governor-General’s Award-winning Canadian novelist end up in a long-term relationship with a convicted murderer serving a life sentence? But when you strip away some of the descriptors and realize that award-winning writers and convicted murderers are basically just human beings, it becomes a more common and recognizable situation: what happens when two people with extremely different backgrounds and life experiences fall in love? Can that gap ever be bridged?

It’s not a spoiler to say that Schoemperlen’s answer to that question is “no,” and that this memoir of her several-years-long relationship with the man she calls “Shane” is raw, difficult and sometimes painful to read. She and Shane met while she was volunteering at a charity where he was working on a prison work release program. Despite their differences, they were attracted to each other and Schoemperlen began the surreal experience of life as a prisoner’s girlfriend, the relationship unfolding through phone calls, letters, supervised chats in the prison visiting room and eventually overnight stays in a prison-provided trailer.

As Schoemperlen depicts her toothless, tattooed, tough-guy lover, it’s hard to imagine that this story could ever have a happy ending; we readers, like Schoemperlen’s real-life friends, are often shaking our heads going, “How could she not have seen that this was a disaster waiting to happen?” If there’s a takeaway lesson here it’s one that we all knew anyway: smart people can sometimes make very poor choices, especially when emotions and hormones are involved. There’s also a good bit of insight here into Canada’s corrections system and its often byzantine and illogical ways, but what I read for were the personal elements of the story, Schoemperlen’s honest and unflinching view of her own faults as well as Shane’s. A very well-written memoir.

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The Weight of Blood, by Laura McHugh

weightofbloodThe Weight of Blood is a novel set in a small Missouri town, where a young girl who disappeared a year earlier has just been found dead. Lucy was a friend of the dead girl, Cherie, and Lucy is also the daughter of Lila, another woman who disappeared mysteriously several years earlier. Naturally, Lucy connects the two missing girls in her mind and wonders if her mother met a fate similar to Cherie’s. 

The author alternates perspectives between Lucy in the present and Lila about eighteen years earlier, gradually revealing both what happened to Lila, and Lucy’s discovery of her mother’s fate. Along the way, that means uncovering several more dark secrets — not just about her mother but about her father and some of the other people closest to her. A small town can hide a lot of grim secrets, and there are more than enough mysteries to go around in The Weight of Blood. 

Lucy’s story is set in the present, but except for a few characters with cellphones and the fact that the creepy characters are cooking meth instead of brewing moonshine, it could as easily be set several decades ago. Lucy’s hometown of Henbane is a rural backwater removed from the mainstream of twenty-first century America, populated by characters who have lots of reasons to hide the truth.I found this a quick and compelling read, and was drawn in by both Lucy’s and Lila’s narrative voices, as well as by the vivid depiction of the town where they live. 

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The Lie Tree, by Frances Hardinge

lietreeThis was an absolutely intriguing book. It’s a YA novel, but more than compelling enough to hold the attention of this adult reader. The Lie Tree is set in Victorian England and told from the perspective of a young girl called Faith Sunderly. Faith’s father, the Reverend Erasmus Sunderly, is a natural scientist, and Faith wants to be a scientist too. She is fascinated by her father’s fossils and specimens, but keenly aware that she lives in a world that doesn’t encourage such interests in a woman. While Faith tries to impress and emulate her brilliant, distant father, her model for how to be a woman is her mother Myrtle, who uses her good looks and charm to cajole favours from men around her, and who tries to mold her daughter into a proper young lady.

When the Sunderly family arrives on the remote island of Vane, where her father has been invited to observe some excavations for new fossils, things take a sinister turn. The novel moves from being simply a well-developed piece of historical fiction to being a murder mystery with a strong thread of fantasy or magic realism. I’ve also seen it described as “horror,” but I didn’t find that it fit that description well. There’s no gore here, but plenty of dread, as Faith discovers and learns to use her father’s most shocking and carefully guarded discovery: the Lie Tree of the title.

What I really loved about this book is that it’s one of the rare times a writer of historical fiction really gets that “strong female character” thing dead right, and you know it’s right. Faith is everything a modern reader wants in a girl character: she’s brilliant, she’s rebellious, she hates the constraints her society places on women. But she also understands and, on some level, buys into those restraints. Hardinge totally avoids the trap of making Faith a twenty-first century girl in a Victorian dress. She is absolutely a real nineteenth-century woman, looking for a way out of the box her society has placed her in — but the reader never doubts for a second that that box is real, as real as Faith’s intelligence and ambition.

This is the kind of story where there are many twists and turns at the end; situations and people will not turn out to be what we thought they were. Most importantly, Faith’s view of the women in her world, including her mother, shifts as she comes to understand them better and see in a new light what is (and is not) possible for a woman.

My dearest hope for Faith is that she grows up to be Alma from Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things (but with a less tragic love story, if she has to have one at all). There were, of course, Victorian women who managed to carve out a place for themselves in the world of science despite all the odds stacked against them, and once you’ve seen Faith Sunderly solve the mystery that engulfs her family on Vane, you can believe she will have the grit and tenacity to be one of those women.

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The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

theundergroundrailroadThis is one of the most interesting books I’ve read in awhile. It’s the book that Oprah got so excited about that it ended up being released early, which obvious gave it a bit boost in the buzz department, which is how I heard of it. It’s one of the more intriguing and thought-provoking novels I’ve read in awhile, and I’m sure it will linger with me for awhile after reading.

On one level, The Underground Railroad is a straightforward historical narrative about a slave named Cora who escapes. She runs away from her owners in the company of another escapee, a young man named Caesar. Together, Cora and Caesar make use of the underground railroad to seek their freedom, pursued by a relentless slave hunter named Ridgeway.

That’s one level of the story, and that alone is compelling enough. But there’s something else going on here, something that’s halfway between magic realism and alternative history. Though many of the details in The Underground Railroad are vividly historically accurate, some are not. The best-known of these, which any review of the novel will spoil you on, is that the “Underground Railroad” of the title is not simply the historic network of safe houses and abolitionists who helped slaves escape to freedom; it is also a literal railroad, a series of underground tunnels and trains carrying these escaped slaves. But that’s not the only place where Whitehead plays with history. In the different places where Cora ends up staying on her flight to freedom — South Carolina, North Carolina, Indiana — she encounters communities organized according to different “solutions” that were proposed over time to America’s “Negro problem” (the problem being the presence of a large number of people who had been kept as slaves and treated as less than human).

For example, in one community Cora finds that the very presence of black people has been outlawed. African-American slaves have been replaced by Irish indentured servants, and freed or escaped blacks must leave the area or risk execution. While this never happened in any historical community in the way depicted, it vividly illustrates the desire on the part of some white people to make the problems caused by slavery “just go away” by erasing black faces and bodies from t landscape. In this way, Colson Whitehead takes ideas and makes them literal, showing us through Cora’s experience not only what life was like for an escaped slave but also what it might have been like, had various theories about “the Negro problem” been put into practice.

This blend of actual history with imagined history made for a vivid and compelling read. I tore through this book quickly and found it hard to put down.

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Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books, by Nick Hornby

tenyearsinatubThis book is a collection of columns that Hornby wrote over a ten-year period for a magazine I’ve never heard of called The Believer, basically talking about what books he chose to read each month, what drew him to those books, and what he thought about them. Hornby is one of my favourite novelists and screenwriters, and I thoroughly enjoyed his highly personal and idiosyncratic comments on what he’s reading. He’s a very funny writer, and sometimes while reading this book I had to stop and read a sentence out loud to whoever I was with, to explain why I was laughing. 

I like that in his column he does the same thing I do on this blog: these are not critical reviews, but simply a stream-of-consciousness journey through one reader’s bookshelves. I also like his attitude towards literature, and culture generally. He relentlessly rejects the snobbery of anyone who tries to tell others what they “should” read, or watch, or listen to. I got a few book recommendations to add to my own ever-growing to-read list from Ten Years in the Tub, and I had the great pleasure of wandering down the byways of Nick Hornby’s mind, which was worth the purchase price of the book in and of itself.

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Vinegar Girl, by Anne Tyler

vinegar girlVinegar Girl is Anne Tyler’s contribution to the Hogarth Shakespeare series, in which several award-winning novelists have taken on the task of re-creating Shakespeare’s stories and characters in the form of contemporary novels. Tyler has admitted she’s an odd choice for this, as she is not a dedicated Shakespearean: she loves the language but thinks most of his plots are ridiculous — which, when you break them down, they often are. Why, then, a project that strips away Shakespeare’s language and asks writers to retell the often-weak plots? I’d suggest it works, when it does work (Vinegar Girl is the only one of the Hogarth Shakespeares I’ve read so far, though I’ve heard good things about others) because of character. Shakespeare created unforgettable characters, even when his (usually borrowed) plots force them into doing silly things. And one of those memorable is Katherina, or Kate, the heroine of The Taming of the Shrew, who in this novel becomes Tyler’s vinegar girl.

If you struggle with Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew is one of the most frustrating of the plays. Kate is a spunky, spirited heroine, a woman determined not to fit into the narrow mold of acceptable female behavior. The play contains scenes between Katherine and her suitor, then husband, Petruchio, that (long before Elizabeth Bennett met Mr. Darcy) laid the groundwork for every romantic comedy you’ve ever seen: two high-spirited, sharp-tongued people engage in verbal one-up-man-ship while not even realizing they’re falling in love. (Admittedly, Shakespeare himself did this even better with Beatrice and Benedict in Much Ado About Nothing, but they aren’t supposed to be the main characters of the play).

However, there’s far darker stuff going on in Taming: the arrogant Petruchio has married the titular shrew Katherina basically to win a bet, and he “tames” her using methods that are, frankly, abusive. At the end of the play Kate emerges tamed, lecturing her sister (and, my extension, women in the audience) about the importance of respecting your man. It’s inevitable that a modern novelist would want to re-examine those plot lines a little.

Some things about Vinegar Girl work very well. Tyler’s Kate Battista is an engaging character — not particularly shrewish, perhaps, but outspoken and forthright with no particular interest in charming anyone. Arranged marriages are few and far between in twenty-first century America, but Kate’s scientist father begs her to enter into one for one of the very few reasons people still do: to prevent his valuable research assistant from being deported. Kate’s reasons for agreeing to the green card marriage are tangled and not always completely believable, but a nice little love story does emerge from the tangle.

The place where I felt the story fell down a little was with the character of Pyotr, the research assistant Kate marries. He’s no Petruchio — in fact it’s hard to tell what he is. I think one shortcoming here is that in order to make the “immigration marriage” story work, Tyler had to make Pyotr a non-native English speaker, which means that his interactions with Kate are hardly characterized by sparkling repartee. And since witty wordplay is the only thing that makes a Katherine-Petruchio type relationship at all worth rooting for, its loss here handicaps the romance. Pyotr is ultimately a likeable character, though he takes awhile to grow on both Kate and the reader, but I didn’t have the feeling that he was really a worthy sparring partner for a modern-day shrew.

In the end I enjoyed the novel for what it was — a very gifted novelist’s attempt to reimagine an old story in a modern setting — but I wasn’t entirely sure it had succeeded. If anyone could make this work, it probably would have been Anne Tyler — which means it likely couldn’t work, not completely. But it was still interesting and engaging to watch her make the attempt.

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Claws of the Cat, by Susan Spann

clawsofthecatFor those mystery lovers who are always looking for a new and intriguing setting for mysteries, Susan Spann is an author worth checking out. Her Shinobi mysteries, of which Claws of the Cat is the first, are set in 16th century Japan, and the crime-solvers are Hiro Hattori, a ninja, and Father Mateo, a Portguese Jesuit missionary. 

When a samurai is found dead in a teahouse, Father Mateo gets involved because the young geisha accused of the murder is one of his converts. The dead man’s son insists that his father’s death be avenged, and sets a deadline: if Father Mateo cannot prove the girl’s innocence within three days, he will be killed along with her. This lends some urgency to the mystery as Hiro and Father Mateo work together to find out who the real killer is.

I loved the detailed setting and the sense of stepping into another world. I would have liked to get to know both Hiro and Father Mateo better as more fully fleshed-out characters, but as this is the first in a series, more character development may follow in the later books I haven’t read yet.

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