Monthly Archives: July 2019

Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson

I had the weirdest experience with this book.

I downloaded it as an e-book from the library. Having read most of Kate Atkinson’s books other than the Jackson Brodie mysteries, I was ready to jump into this series with Case Histories, the first book. I knew Atkinson to be a writer who expects readers to be smart and to pay attention. The story gripped me immediately, with a compelling incident that made me care about the main character and want to read on. Then, there was a huge jump forward in time, same character in a scene decades later that assumed a lot of knowledge about the character’s present-day life. Okay, I thought, I can keep up. As I read on, the author is throwing lots of names and information at me without any explanation or backstory — but it’s OK, I thought. It’s all going to be revealed as the story unfolds.

Remember, this is a mystery. And in this confusing second chapter with all the names and things to keep track of, at least a part of the mystery seems to be solved already. With the implication that we were supposed to know and care about these characters, who have only just been introduced. I’m confused by now, but hanging in there, because the writing is great and I trust Kate Atkinson.

What I shouldn’t have trusted was my own ability to open the e-book without accidentally brushing my finger across the table of contents page.

I had started the book, not at Chapter One, but at Chapter Twenty. Of twenty-eight. I read chapters twenty and twenty-one before I realized I was not at the beginning of the book.

I went back and started at the beginning, and wow, everything made so much more sense! (though a few things were spoilered for me).

Once I started at the right place, I realized Case Histories is indeed a tightly-woven, character-driven mystery — really, several interwoven mysteries, some of which get more fully resolved than others — by a writer who does trust her readers to be smart and put the pieces together. But not so smart that you can skip the first 19 chapters and expect to know what’s going on.

I’ll be reading the rest of the series, but I hope to start each book at the beginning.

note: Looking back at my own reviews of Atkinson’s books, I see that I claim to have read (but not reviewed, because it was before I started this book blog) Case Histories back when it originally came out. I have NO recollection of this — not from Chapter One or Chapter 20 or any of the others. I guess some books really do get wiped from memory!! I did enjoy this apparently second read-through, though.

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Filed under Fiction -- mystery

Neverworld Wake, by Marisha Pessl

In this very high-concept young-adult novel, a group of high school friends is torn apart after the mysterious death of their golden boy, Jim, in a possible suicide near the end of senior year. Or rather, one of the group — Jim’s girlfriend, Beatrice — is torn away from the rest of the group, retreating into her private grief while the other four members of the group remain close. At the end of her first year of college, Beatrice meets up with the other four, and a second tragedy at the end of that night traps all five young people in a time loop. They are doomed to relieve the last few hours of their lives over and over until they can agree on which one of them will survive — and only one can make it out alive.

This contrivance is used to explore the five characters and how they react to the situation. The ways in which they deal with the time loop will be familiar to anyone who’s seen any film or read any book that deals with the premise of repeated time or repeated lives — they try to escape, then they immerse themselves in hedonistic pleasure, then they finally settle down to seriously trying to solve the problem presented by the loop. One of the group, Martha,, convinces everyone that in order to get out of the loop, they need to solve the mystery of Jim’s death, and so they become obsessed with conducting an investigation, eventually learning that they can travel back to relive different days. When they finally get back to relive the night Jim died, all the pieces are in place for them to finally break out of the Neverworld Wake. Or rather, for one of them to break out.

I read this in a day; it kept the pages turning and kept me engaged in solving the mystery of Jim’s death and waiting to see how/if/who would survive at the end of the novel.

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Filed under Fiction -- general, Young Adult

Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen, by Alison Weir

You’ve got to hand it to Alison Weir: she knows her thing and she does it. After writing numerous non-fiction books about women in English royalty in the Tudor period and earlier, she began branching out into fiction, often writing novels about the same women she had previously written non-fiction about. The True Queen is the first in her series of six novels about the wives of Henry VIII (four have been released so far, with Katherine Howard and Katherine Parr still to come), and it is an absolutely competent, enjoyable, in no way surprising but also in no way disappointing, view of Katherine of Aragon’s life from her own point of view. I plan to read all the rest of the series as they become available, but Katherine of Aragon is one of Henry’s wives that I feel the most sorry for — the random chance of her not being able to bear a male child who survived led to so much bitter unhappiness for her (as well as to the existence of the Church of England, so there’s that). While much of that unhappiness in her later years was deepened by her own incredibly stubbornness in refusing to accept the divorce (she should have taken an annulment and accepted Henry’s offer to go to a convent: she would have made a fantastic abbess and they would have continued to have a good relationship, most likely), this re-telling of the story from her perspective helps the reader see how all her choices seemed justified and even necessary to Katherine — which is really what a good work of historical fiction should do for its subject.

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Filed under Fiction -- historical

Even Weirder Than Before, by Susie Taylor

Even Weirder Than Before is a quiet, introspective coming of age story set in a Toronto suburb in the late 1980s. As the book opens, Daisy is a Grade Eight student struggling with the breakup of her parents’ marriage and the normal adolescent “where-do-I-fit-in?” questions. The novel is  not long, but it unfolds over the next four years: by the time the story ends, Daisy is finishing Grade Twelve and has learned a great deal about her family, her friends, and, of course, herself.

Despite covering so many years in a relatively short book, the story is, in a way, slow-paced, in the sense that it’s more episodic than plot-driven. It’s a coming of age novel that is just that: the story being told is simply the story of Daisy growing up, dealing with all the issues that growing up entails. It’s fascinating to watch her relationships with those around her change. We see that change within her family, as her mother copes with single parenthood and a new relationship, and her older sister seeks her own path in life, and her father settles in with the younger woman he left for. We also see it, perhaps even more so, with her friends. The most important of these relationships is with her childhood best friend Wanda: the shape and fabric of this friendship stretches and changes over the years of high school as both girls grow up, and as other friendships and crushes bloom and fade, but Wanda remains a constant in Daisy’s life.

The book is filled not only with beautiful, understated moments of self-realization, but also with wonderful period detail. I am about half a generation older than the author — at my first job out of college I was teaching students Daisy’s age — and I was keenly aware of the story manages to feel both contemporary and like a period piece, a throwback to that time when teenagers managed to meet up and hook up without cellphones or Snapchat. The pains of adolescence are, to some extent, universal and timeless, yet deeply rooted in the popular culture of the years during which you’re a teenager. Daisy’s world is a completely believable one anchored in a very specific time and place, but also in the growing pains that we can all, to some extent, relate to.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- general, Newfoundland author, Young Adult

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, by Alicia Elliott

This is a book I’ve seen recommended a lot, and I’m so glad that I chose to buy it as an audiobook and listen to the author herself read it, because that format really increased the intimacy and power of an already-intimate book. I’ve shelved it as a “memoir” in my tags, which it is, but it’s not really a memoir in the sense of telling a single chronological narrative of the author’s life. Rather, it’s a collection of powerful personal essays, in which Elliott ties her personal and family stories into broader themes: mental illness, racism, what it means to be an indigenous person in today’s Canada, violence against indigenous girls and woman, domestic violence, and much more.

Alicia Elliott pulls no punches and doesn’t sugar-coat any aspect of the trauma she writes about, whether it’s her own personal/family trauma or the larger background against which its set: the generations of trauma inflicted on indigenous people by settler colonizers and the governments they created. As a settler-descended Canadian, this was a tough but important read for me. It’s rare that a writer can manage to write in terms that are both searingly personal and yet broadly applicable to larger issues in our society, but Alicia Elliott achieves this. I highly recommend this book.

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Filed under Audiobook, Canadian author, Nonfiction -- memoir

The Break, by Katherena Vermette

I had picked up and looked at The Break a few times when it was up for Canada Reads a couple of years ago, but it was a friend’s recommendation that finally got me to read it. The Break tells the story of a single act of violence on a winter night in Winnipeg’s North End, and how the lives of numerous people, most of them connected by ties of extended family, are impacted by this crime. Victim, perpetrator, police officer, witness, and many people affected simply because they’re part of the community — perspectives and voices overlap as the many characters, most of them First Nations women, tell their parts of the story.

In the multi-voiced structure and the story’s situation within the larger story of First Nations communities in a contemporary North American city, this book reminded me to some extent of Tommy Orange’s There, There. In that book, all the multiple characters’ stories converged towards a single act of violence; here, they refract outwards from it, showing a little of what led to the crime but far more of what happens as a result. Along the way there is anger, grief, resilience, humour and hope. It’s a beautiful novel, largely about strong indigenous women and how they try to hold themselves and their families and communities together amid the impacts of generational trauma and institutionalized racism.

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Filed under Canada Reads, Canadian author, Fiction -- general

Early Riser, by Jasper Fforde

The last two books I reviewed were new novels by writers I’ve enjoyed in the past, and they did not disappoint. It’s even harder when the book is by one of your very favourite authors in the world, and they haven’t released a new book for quite a long time so that you actually miss the announcement of the new book, and then you finally get your hands on it and … well, the expectations for Jasper Fforde’s Early Riser were pretty high, is what I’m saying. I knew it was a stand-alone book unconnected to his other work, and I wasn’t expecting another Thursday Next, but … well, let’s just say this is not my favourite Jasper Fforde novel.

I mean, you’ve got to (I’ve got to) admire a novelist who tries new things and strikes off in bold directions rather than followed tried-and-true paths that have led to bestsellers in the past. In Early Riser, Fforde brings the reader into an alternate-reality version of our world where, for reasons I didn’t fully understand, almost all humans in northern countries hibernate through the long, cold winters. The novel’s main character, a hapless young man called Charlie Worthing, has just signed on to work as a Winter Consul, one of the small group of people who stay awake during the Winter to safeguard the sleeping masses. And from there … it just gets weird.

There’s a lot going on in Early Riser — a lot of premise, a lot of characters (some quite brilliantly drawn) — a lot of different factions competing with one another. They are competing for control of many things (I think): of the half-alive, zombie-like people who have awakened from hibernation with low brain function but the ability to still perform basic tasks, of Morphinex, the drug people rely on for an easy, dreamless sleep, and of a viral dream that a lot of people seem to be sharing during hibernation, that holds the keys to … honestly I can’t even remember what.

It’s confusing, is what I’m saying. Or it was to me. I admire detailed and thoughful worldbuilding, but there’s so much world being built here that I just got lost in the details. It’s a key part of this story that Charlie can’t really tell who are the good guys and who are the bad guys, but I couldn’t even tell who all the guys (and girls) were, much less what side they were on, never mind why.

Jasper Fforde has always been a writer that demands a reader be pretty clever to keep up with him, and I’ve always been up to the challenge and loved his work, but this one … just defeated me. I did stick with it and was kind of engaged by the ending, but had it not been by one of my very favourite writers, I would have given up on it halfway through.

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Filed under Fiction - SciFi