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Nothing Like the Sun, by Anthony Burgess

nothinglikethesunThis novel about Shakespeare, focusing on his romantic and sex-life, isn’t an easy read, but it did prove to be well worth reading. Burgess’s attempt to echo the language of Shakespeare’s era in his stream-of-consciousness narration reminded me a little of a much more recent novel, Michelle Butler Hallett’s This Marlowe. The authenticity of the language makes it a slow read for the modern reader, but ultimately, a rewarding one, even if (especially as a woman) I might not agree with every aspect of Burgess’s perspective on Shakespeare’s private life. The mysteries of Shakespeare’s marriage, the “dark lady” of the sonnets, and the attractive young man to whom some of the sonnets are also addressed, are all fully explored in this book. I found it worked better while I read if I imagined it more as a series of length prose poems in Shakespeare’s voice than a novel in the more traditional sense.

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An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, by Hank Green

remarkableYou all know I’m a big fan of YA author John Green, so when his younger brother Hank, better known till now as a YouTube science educator and singer of mostly-novelty songs, wrote a book, I was naturally interested to read it as well. An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is quite unlike one of John Green’s books — for one thing, it’s adult, not YA, although I guess if you have an overwhelming urge to cut the literary market up into smaller and smaller segments you could call in New Adult as the main characters are all in their early 20s. Also, it’s probably best classed as sci-fi, although it takes place in a very real and present-day America not in a galaxy far, far away. Hank’s book is not like one of John’s books: it is its own absolutely remarkable thing.

The novel’s first-person narrator, art-school graduate and graphic designer April May, starts out being just a little too cute and quirky for comfort (I mean, she is named April May) but quickly develops from the “quirky artsy girl” stereotype into something much more complex and multilayered. The action of the novel gets going almost immediately when April discovers what she thinks is an enormous piece of street art — a statue of a robot in the middle of a New York sidewalk — and calls her YouTuber friend Andy to come make a video about it in the middle of the night. When April wakes up the next morning to discover that dozens of identical statues have appeared in cities all over the globe and her video has gone viral.

As the mystery of the “Carls” (April called the original statue Carl in her video and the name catches on) grows more complex, so does April’s online fame and her increasingly strained relationship with her public self. This book does a lot of things well, including one thing Hank Green is extremely well-qualified to do: examine the pressures and expectations that are brought to bear on a human being who suddenly becomes larger than life. Sudden fame turns April from a woman into a brand, a symbol, and, eventually, a target for people driven by hate and fear. But April herself is far from a flawless innocent — she is impulsive, shows terrible judgement at times, and finds herself doing frankly cruel things in pursuit of what she increasingly comes to see as a cause.

A meditation on fame in the internet age, an exploration of how humanity might react as a group if faced with something outside our collective experience, a coming of age story, a parable about polarization in today’s political climate — An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is all those things, but mostly it’s a strong, fast-paced story that left me hurrying to finish it and eager for the sequel. The story doesn’t end on a cliffhanger exactly — many threads are resolved, but enough are left open to invite the reader into the next chapter of April’s (and, I guess, Carl’s) story.

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The Long Song, by Andrea Levy

longsongOne of my favourite things about historical fiction is the opportunity to learn about another place and time in a way that completely immerses me in a person’s story. That was the case with The Long Song, a novel set during the final years of slavery on a Jamaican sugar plantation.

Of course, I knew that the use of enslaved African people had its start on the sugar plantations of the Caribbean, long before it came to the cotton fields of the American South. I also knew that slavery ended three decades earlier in the British Empire than it did in the US — that was the context for Canada being the ultimate destination for enslaved people fleeing the US via the Underground Railroad. What I didn’t know was any detail about how the institution of slavery ended in the Caribbean — the six-year period of “apprenticeship” workers were required to serve after supposedly being freed, the reactions of both enslaved people and slave owners to the change in status, the ways in which slave owners attempted to cripple their former chattels’ attempts to be independent and self-sufficient so that they would continue to have a source of cheap labour. 

This brutal story is told through the eyes of the elderly July, who grew up in slavery, was taken from her mother in childhood to become a personal maid to the plantation owner’s sister Caroline, and made the uneasy transition to freedom on a plantation ruled by Caroline and her overseer Robert Goodwin, a man who arrives in Jamaica from England full of noble ideas about justice and freedom for enslaved people, but quickly changes his views when confronted with the realities of plantation life. Through horrific treatment and injustice July emerges as a strong-willed, wry, witty commentator on the society changing so rapidly around her. Her voice and its dialect rhythms carries the reader into her world with vivid and convincing detail.

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The Waiting Room, by Leah Kaminsky

thewaitingroomThis 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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Seven Fallen Feathers, by Tanya Talaga

sevenfeathersAgain, 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.

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The Room on Rue Amelie, by Kristin Harmel

rueamelieThe 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.

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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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