This was a book I picked up on impulse — judging it by its back-cover blurb — and while it wasn’t a bad read, the premise promises a little more than it delivers, I think. The main character, Dina, is a doctor in modern-day Israel. She’s from Australia, but married to an Israeli, and she finds life in a country where terrorist threats are a daily reality almost unbearably stressful — especially as she worries about the well-being of her young son and unborn daughter, and her native-born husband sees her fears as a sign of weakness. To top it off, Dina is haunted, almost literally, by memories of her late mother, a Holocaust survivor. Violence past and present casts its shadow over Dina’s life. The story unfolds over a single day with many flashbacks, and I wanted to be really drawn into it, but I found Dina a strangely distant main character, and the pacing of the story was odd and kept throwing me off. However, a lot of that may have just been me as a reader, and if the summary sounds interesting to you, you should definitely pick it up and see what you think.
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Again, as with my last non-fiction read, this is a book that several people have recommended to me. It’s not an easy read but it is definitely important.
Specifically, it’s an in-depth analysis of the deaths of seven First Nations teenagers over a period of several years in the Ontario town of Thunder Bay. All were high schools students from remote Northern communities; all were boarding in the city, sometimes with family and sometimes with strangers; most of the deaths were drownings; none of them was adequately or promptly investigated by police. The stories of these seven tragedies are compelling in and of themselves but the author also makes very clear that this is not just the story of seven dead young people in Thunder Bay but also the much broader story of Canada’s treatment of its First Nations people — from the generational repercussions of the horror of the residential school system to the substandard living conditions on many First Nations reserves still today.
As Canadians we like to pride ourselves on our tolerance and inclusivity, but there are many places where this complacent national self-image rubs harshly against reality, and this is never more true than when it comes to the treatment of our indigenous people. Seven Fallen Feathers shines a harsh light on the results of Canadian bigotry towards First Nations people, and challenges us as a nation to do better.
The Room on Rue Amelie is a sweet little historical romance with a couple of twists. The first twist is that, much like Kate Quinn’s The Alice Network, which I read recently, it uncovers a little-known piece of wartime history. In this case it’s the underground Resistance network in France during the Second World War that helped downed Allied pilots escape from occupied France, and an American woman who married a Frenchman and ended up becoming a part of that network. While the novel’s main character is fictional, her experiences are partly based on true stories.
The second twist is kind of set up in the prologue, and I won’t spoil it except to say that this story doesn’t promise a straightforward path to a happily-ever-after ending. Set amid the perils of Nazi-occupied France, there’s no guarantee the characters are going to make it safely through, and it’s good to see an author that’s willing to put her characters in real peril.
This 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 –“
“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.
Kate 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.
I don’t know if Everyone Brave is Forgiven is, technically speaking, the “best” book I’ve read so far this year, but it certainly has been the most emotionally engrossing — to the point that I nearly stopped breathing at one point when a character’s life was in danger.
All the characters’ lives are in danger, because the novel is set during the Second World War, in London and also at the front. One character, Alastair, serves in France before Dunkirk and later at the siege of Malta, a piece of the war I’d never read anything about before. The other two main characters, Mary and Tom, are doing war work on the home front during the London Blitz. On the simplest level, the novel is a love triangle among these three characters, but it’s so much more than that. It’s about how terrible times of stress and violence can bring out not only the best but also the worst in people, about questioning what your life’s purpose is, about love and friendship and survival, about how to put the pieces of your life back together after it’s been shattered.
The glimpses of London during the terrible year of 1940-1941 go far deeper than the historical cliches we all know so well about brave Londoners during the Blitz, to really explore how the brutality of life in a city at war exposes divisions along race, gender and class lines. The characters are so memorable and real that I cared deeply at once about what happened to them, and the writing is brilliant in the way Cleave is able to so quickly sketch a scene that reveals so much about that turbulent time and place.
Little Fires Everywhere is a book I heard recommended from all directions before I finally read it, and it did not disappoint. It’s a story about a neighbourhood, a family, and a woman, all which aspire to perfection, and another woman who moves into that neighbourhood and defies its expectations and norms. It’s a coming-of-age story about five teenagers — the three good, conforming children of Elena Richardson’s “perfect” family, along with that family’s black sheep Izzy, and their friend Pearl, daughter of artist and single-mom Mia. Mia and Pearl move into the Richardsons’ lives when Mia rents an apartment from them, but when she becomes their housecleaner and Pearl forges relationships with each of the Richardson teenagers, things get messy.
Complicating all this is a story that involves none of these main characters directly but which all of them get drawn into. A local couple, friends of the Richardsons, have adopted a Chinese baby after years of infertility. But this baby is not adopted from a Chinese orphanage: she was abandoned on the steps of the firehall, and the mother is a local woman who regrets her decision and fights to get her child back. As everyone takes a stand on the controversial case, cracks in relationships and turning point in people’s lives appear, and everyone is tested and changed.
I had a couple of very minor quibbles with this book — I thought Moody’s feelings towards, and relationship with, Pearl, would likely have been clarified before a particular crisis in the story hits, and I expected more of a surprising twist at the end than I actually got. But those were minor indeed for a book I enjoyed reading so much, and the very end packed such a huge emotional wallop that I was briefly knocked back — it was so right and so powerful. Mother/daughter relationships are a very central theme here, which is something I always find interesting, and the complexities of that relationship in its many forms are beautifully, and often painfully, explored in this book. I highly recommend it.