Monthly Archives: March 2018

The City of Brass, by S.A. Chakraborty

cityofbrassThis is the most engrossing, engaging new fantasy novel I’ve read in awhile. Set in the Middle East in the late 1700s and drawing heavily on Islamic mythologies about djinn and other magical creatures, this is a wonderful debut and I was only disappointed to realize that it’s the first of a trilogy and I have to wait for the next two to come out (I hate to wait).

On one level, Chakraborty is playing with some pretty familiar fantasy tropes. I tried to describe the plot to my husband, who also loves fantasy although we often feel quite differently about books. “So there’s this young girl, Nahri, who lives on the streets and is kind of a thief and a con artist, and she has these powers but has no idea what they mean or why she has them…”

“So, like Vin in Mistborn?” says Jason.

The thing is, he loved the Mistborn books and I … did not. And I found Vin’s character really irritating. I loved Nahri in City of Brass, but when he said that I had to admit … yeah, it is kinda the same thing. And then I went on,

“So she accidentally calls up a djinn, and she finds out that she’s part-djinn too, and she has to go to –“

“Hogwarts?”

“No, she has to go to Daevabad, which is this magical djinn city…”

“So basically, Hogwarts for djinn.”

So yeah, there are some familiar fantasy tropes here, but I found them really well done. Yes, Nahri is the classic kid-from-nowhere-who-turns-out-to-be-someone-secretly-powerful, and yes there is a romance plot that could be seen as a bit predictable, though I think the combination of the author’s writing style and the Middle Eastern backdrop kept me intrigued. (Also, the romance plot may be familiar, but the love interest is smoking hot, and not just metaphorically). But interwoven with Nahri’s story is another story, less familiar — that of Ali, second son of the king of Daevabad. Ali’s story is one of power struggles and palace intrigue, of a king who is holding in balance a (gorgeously depicted) city of unruly magical subjects, in which two very different groups of people — the shafit and the daeva — both believe they are marginalized and being treated unfairly by the king (but also hate each other and are easily used as weapons against each other). As Nahri and her djinn guide reach the city and her story begins to interweave with Ali’s palace plots, things hurtle toward a violent conclusion from which the eventual endgame of the series is anything but predictable.

Book 2 comes out next January, and I will be downloading it as fast as it’s available. I can’t wait for the rest of this series.

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The Last Tudor, by Philippa Gregory

lasttudorI have a hit-or-miss experience with Philippa Gregory’s historical novels — I’ve loved some, disliked others, and felt just “meh” about a lot of them. I found The Last Tudor one of the more engrossing ones, as she begins with a story I know fairly well — the nine-day reign of Queen Jane Grey — and continues after Jane’s execution with the stories of Jane’s younger sisters Katherine and Mary, two women whose stories I knew nothing about. Both of them spent much of their short lives in prison or under house arrest for the crimes of marrying without Queen Elizabeth I’s permission. Like their dead sister they were close in line to inherit the throne, and while Elizabeth remained, by her own choice, unmarried and childless, any female heir to the throne with a husband and a male child (or the chance of having one) was a potential threat, a potential rallying-point for the queen’s enemies.

This is a good story, and Jane, Katherine and Mary all come to life as vividly realized characters (Jane perhaps a bit less so than her sisters, but then she did die at 16). Elizabeth I is portrayed as selfish, vain, petty, cruel — almost a monster, which is likely how her Grey cousins would have perceived her as they languished under house arrest, separated from the husbands they married for love. I usually don’t have a problem with writers showing bias towards historical characters, because I think they’re reflecting the views of their own point-of-view characters — e.g. I don’t agree with the people who think Hilary Mantel glorifies Thomas Cromwell and demonizes Thomas More, because she’s writing from Cromwell’s p.o.v. and of course that’s how he sees it. But I do think Philippa Gregory has an anti-Elizabeth bias of her own and it comes through both in this novel and in her earlier book The Virgin’s Lover. While Elizabeth certainly had a petty, cruel side and no doubt was deeply resented by the many people she imprisoned, she had her strengths as well — she was a complex woman. She had to be, to be the first English queen to enjoy a long, successful and solo reign. No hint of that complexity comes through in this novel — it’s hard to imagine this Elizabeth having governed a small-town council much less England in what became known as its Golden Age. 

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Everything Happens for a Reason (And Other Lies I’ve Loved), by Kate Bowler

everythinghappensKate Bowler’s Everything Happens for a Reason, with its wonderful subtitle, is a memoir about a young, apparently healthy person with her whole life ahead of her, being diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. Many readers will immediately think of the parallel to Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, and there certainly are similarities — both very well-written and moving memoirs about an experience no-one is prepared to have in their mid-thirties.

For me there were two important differences. The first is that the unique perspective in Kalanithi’s book came from the author being a medical doctor and now finding himself a patient, looking at the experience of illness from both sides of the doctor’s desk. Kate Bowler’s added insight comes not from the area of medicine but spirituality. She is a professor of religion as well as a Christian herself, and not long before her diagnosis she published a book about her area of expertise: prosperity-gospel churches, that uniquely American type of name-it-and-claim-it theology in which God will give you a bigger house or a fancy car — or healing from cancer — if you just ask with enough faith. While Bowler had never been that kind of Christian herself, being diagnosed with cancer made her better appreciate why people are drawn to that belief — and also more keenly aware of its shortcomings, since it promises what it doesn’t provide.

The other big difference between the two books, of course, is that Kalanathi’s memoir was published posthumously, while Kate Bowler, thankfully, is still with us, living “scan to scan” as she says, with experimental treatments that prolong her life while never entirely removing the shadow of impending death. She hosts an insightful and funny podcast called Everything Happens, and an internet friend of mine got to meet her last week at a conference where she spoke. I’m so glad to know she’s doing well for now … but her book will remind you of the beauty and fragility of every day.

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We Were Eight Years in Power, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

eightyearsThis book was powerful and a bit overwhelming. I read it quite soon after Timothy Tyson’s The Blood of Emmett Till, so I was already thinking about racism in general, and anti-black racism in America in particular. Coates’ book covered some of the same historical ground as the Emmett Till book, but also ranged much farther, and focused on the eight years of the Obama presidency, which coincided with Coates rising from an unemployed would-be writer to a regular feature writer for The Atlantic and one of the most respected writers and thinkers on racism in the U.S. today. This book is a collection of eight of his essays (mostly if not all from The Atlantic), one for each year from 2008-2016, each prefaced by a short reflection about what was happening, both in the country and in Coates’s own life and thinking, when that piece was written.

The “eight years” of the title refers only secondarily to the tenure of the US’s first black president: the primary reference (a direct quote) is to the Reconstruction period in the American South after the Civil War, when freed black people were briefly allowed full franchise and a role in government, only to see their accomplishments rolled back by a resurgent white supremacist movement that instigated segregation and disenfranchised black southerners for a century. Coates’s point in drawing the parallel is that he views Obama’s presidency, like the Reconstruction era, as evidence that when African-Americans play the game of “respectability politics,” working twice as hard as white Americans to achieve the same goals and showing that they can succeed at the white man’s game, rather than winning the respect of white people they will instead be met with a backlash of white supremacy. The election of Donald Trump following eight years of the Obama presidency is, as he sees it, the clearest example of this. What white Americans fear even more than black people behaving badly, Coates points out, is black people behaving well — and governing well. Because that raises the spectre of true equality, which is what white supremacists fear most of all.

This is the central argument, but there’s so much more here — reflections on both Barack and Michelle Obama, on Bill Cosby and Malcolm X, on mass incarceration, reparations, and the failed “war on drugs,” on the author’s own sometimes-jarring rise to fame. This book offers searing critiques and condemnations, little optimism, and a great deal of material for reflection. It’s brilliantly written and hard to stop thinking about once you’ve read it.

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The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, by Stephen Greenblatt

adamandeverI was given this book as a Christmas gift and didn’t know quite what to expect, but I found it fascinating. The author takes the Biblical story of Adam and Eve and traces it through the centuries, beginning with when, where and why it was likely written and contrasting it to other creation myths from Middle Eastern cultures. He then looks at how the story has been understood by both Jews and Christians throughout the centuries, exploring both literal and figurative interpretations of the story. Plenty of space is also given to depictions of Adam and Eve in art and literature: the art history chapters are accompanied with beautiful full-colour illustrations, while three full chapters are given to John Milton and his epic Paradise Lost, which has shaped so much of how we see this story today, probably even more than the brief chapters in Genesis.

In the end, whether people throughout history have taken the story literally or symbolically, what we believe about our origins has a powerful impact on how we view ourselves. That’s the bottom line of this book and I found it really intriguing.

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The Conjoined, by Jen Sookfong Lee

conjoinedThe Conjoined has about the most perfect set-up for a page-turner that I’ve ever read. Jessica and her father are cleaning out her mother’s belongings after her mother’s death when two long-undisturbed deep freezers turn out to hold a body each. And it just so happens that 28 years ago, when Jessica was a child and her saintly mother Donna was hosting two of a long string of foster children … two girls who were in Donna’s care disappeared, presumed to have run away.

From this chilling beginning the story unfolds in several timelines. Jessica, who has always loved her mother and also felt a bit intimidated by Donna’s ostentatious goodness, has to rethink everything she thought she knew about her mother — which also leads to her rethinking a fair bit of her own life and her work as a social worker. We also see the backstory of the two foster girls, Casey and Jamie Cheng, and the troubled family situation that led them into foster care. 

This is a fascinating story written with great care and detail. I had two quibbles with it: first, I was very surprised when, midway through the book, I realized that the timeline of the story required Jessica to be in her late thirties. She seemed to me to be portrayed far more like someone in her late twenties — her attitudes towards her parents, her boyfriend, her work, her own life, seem much more believable if she’s 28 than 38. Also, I had some issues with the ending. I understand what Lee was doing with it and probably why, but it left too much unresolved for me. However, not every reader will share my preference for a more resolved ending, and if you are not reading this book mainly for the “whodunit” aspect but for the delicately observed character development, I don’t think you will find it jarring.

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The End of Music, by Jamie Fitzpatrick

Layout 1Jamie Fitzpatrick’s latest book has been on my to-read list for awhile, since we share a publisher and our books were both part of Breakwater’s fall 2017 list, so we even shared a launch event. So it was a pleasure to finally be able to sit down with this fine novel, in which two parallel stories unfold decades apart.

One is the story of Joyce, a young outport girl who comes to Gander, Newfoundland in the 1950s, drawn by the thriving little airport town’s promise of jobs. For a brief time in the mid-20th century, this small central Newfoundland town become a hub of transatlantic air travel, and people like Joyce forged new lives there far from the fishing-centred villages they had come from. As Joyce tries to forge a life and an identity for herself, she comes in contact with a shifting array of characters from around the world who pass through the airport town.

Interspersed with Joyce’s story is the story of Joyce’s son Herb Carter, whose tale unfolds decades later when his mother is an elderly woman in a nursing home and Carter (who’s generally referred to by his surname in the novel) is a middle-aged graduate student with a wife and son, thinking back to his brief stint as a minor rock star. His old bandmate and lover, Leah, is dying, and Carter gets drawn into a project to try to revive and re-release some of their old music, which inevitably pulls him into re-examining some aspects of his own past. Music is a common theme between his story and his mother’s, as Joyce used to sing for a dance band in her early days in Gander. Both characters are well-developed and interesting, and the glimpses of Gander’s history, so different from what we normally think of as “Newfoundland history,” are really fascinating.

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