Not Suitable for Family Viewing, Vicki Grant

HarperTrophyCanada, 2009, 289 pages (soft cover)

I’d never heard of this book or its author, but it’s one of those random library picks that turned out to be an entertaining surprise. Not to mention it’s Canadian, and it made me LOL. I really love books that  literally make me laugh out loud.

Before I get to the meat and potatoes here, can we pause for a moment to communally groan at this cover? As a result I was forced to find creative ways to hold my book while reading on the bus….

That’s not really where the groans stopped for this book, either. The first-person present-tense story is told from the perspective of Robin, the oft-forgotten daughter of Oprah-like TV mega-personality, Mimi Schwartz. (Want to know the name of Mimi’s show? You, You, and Mimi. Groan.) In the shadow of her famous mother, Robin feels like a neglected, fat slob with no motivation to do anything. Then one day she finds a little clue to her mother’s pre-fame days, which is just intriguing enough for Robin to take off for a tiny po-dunk village to do some detective work. This is both where the real eye-rolling as well as nail biting started for me. Along her way Robin meets a guy, who slowly but surely (somehow) becomes a love interest [spoiler alert! highlight to read!] even after she punches him in the face upon their first meeting, and later proceeds to scream – yes, literally scream – every time she sees him thereafter. Obviously this leads to his finding her very quirky, funny, and sexy- sexy. Teeny-bopper romance aside – and I had to gag my way through plenty of that – there’s actually a pretty twisty mystery hidden in these pages. I didn’t realize how much red herring is strategically placed throughout the book, until I’d finished it and had it on my mind the next couple days. Coming off of Paper Townsthis one had a lot more to offer in terms of difficulty actually cracking the case.

I’m glad I was compelled enough to keep on through the first half of this book, because the second half proved well worth it. In the first half I wondered why it was an award winner; now I see why. Layered beneath the typical teen beach romance is actually a strong commentary about how appearances aren’t what they seem.

Dear George Clooney: Please Marry My Mom, Susin Nielson

Tundra Books, 2010, 229 pages

Twelve-year-old Violet is one of the funniest, frank, most passive-aggressive characters I’ve read all year. I can’t remember liking a kid protagonist this much since Flavia DeLuce.

Violet’s story starts off sad. Her Vancouver family has all but fallen apart after her TV-producer father leaves for a blonde LA actress named Jennica. Now Violet has to deal with a little sister who wets the bed and a mom who’s quickly turned into a serial dater with bad taste. What’s more, her father constantly wants her to visit in LA, where her evil stepmom and new twin sisters live. How does she cope? The novel starts with her tricking the twins into eating cat poo, and, well, it doesn’t get much better from there. Once her mom starts dating a guy named Dudley Wiener, Violet realizes it’s time to take matters into her own hands. She quickly devises a plan to set her mom up with a better man…a man who could get rid of Dudley and show her dad a thing or two. Enter George Clooney!

Total Mom material!

Despite her oftentimes bad attitude, and even the occasional urge to insult five-year-olds, I think Violet’s pretty charming. And not everyone would agree with me on this, which is why she’s that much more interesting to me. Here is a fictional girl who’s every bit as confused and complex as a living, breathing tween. Her problems are not insurmountable, but she’s written in such a way, and surrounded by such a colourful cast of characters, that she becomes special in her ordinariness. If all the surly teens of the world could vocalize what was going on in their heads, we’d get narratives like this one – and I think we’d respect them a bit more. After a few chapters it was easy to see that underneath her scales, all Violet really needs is a hug.

Dear George Clooney is funny, sweet, touching, well-written and funny. Yes, I know I said that twice. But when you stay up half the night to finish this book only to wake up the rest of the house with your laughter, I think you’ll find it double-funny, too!

Acceleration, Graham McNamee

I wasn’t going to do a review for this one, but it happens so seldom that one randomly picks up a book they end up liking. Now I owe it to this book to do a little write-up.

This YA thriller that is fast, edgy, dark and frequently funny. It follows 17-year-old Duncan, who works in the Toronto Transit Authority’s lost and found department. It’s a soul-crushing summer job with few perks; not even a window to look out of in the dark underground. Then one day Duncan comes across a book. He starts reading and soon finds out he can’t stop. Inside is the journal of a madman, who sounds like he’s gearing up to kill somebody.

After a tragedy that left Duncan feeling guilty and grief-stricken, he makes it his very own mission to find the creep who wrote this book, and somehow prevent him from doing something terrible. This is the part where the reader wants to shake some sense into the protagonist, yelling something along the lines of “what are you thinking!?” However, his single-mindedness about searching down this potential killer, with the help of his not-too-bright slacker friends, is exactly what makes you read faster. McNamee did a splendid job balancing the realistically dark thoughts of a psychopath with the often hilarious quips and antics of Duncan, Wayne and Vinny.

The only thing I didn’t like about this book was the easy-exit ending. After keeping me on my toes, it dropped off too quickly for my liking. I would give this book a high 4 stars out of 5 , but the ending pushes it down to 3. That said, I’d be curious to search out more from this odd and fascinating author in future.

Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, Vincent Lam

Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures won the prestigious Giller Prize (for Canadian fiction) in 2006, which means I was at least acquainted with the title of this book. And tha’ts about all I knew about it. I got really excited when I realized it’s twelve stand-alone but interconnected short stories. I don’t often search out books of short stories, usually because when I do…they’re weird. And not the good kind of weird! So here’s the beauty of having no expectations – three stories into this collection, I was hooked.

Bloodletting follows four doctors (Ming, Fitzgerald, Chen, and Sri) from medical school prep, to acceptance, all the way to residency. Each story builds on the last while presenting new facts and a medical case (or several). That Lam writes about the wonderful world of medicine seems appropriate. It’s not just that the author was an ER doctor himself, and is writing what he knows. Some stories were better than others, but overall Lam’s writing is measured, careful, self-assured, oddly creative and at times, risky. This is a doctor writing about doctors, and it works.

My Standouts:

  • Winston, about a man slipping into psychosis, and Dr. Sri’s response. It raises the question of “how involved is too involved?” On one hand, Sri’s knocking at doors and playing detective goes above and beyond what’s called for or appropriate. On the other hand, you can see where everyone could have benefited more if only he’d fully crossed that line. Implicitly, I think it points to gaps in how our medical system is designed to address mental illness.
  • An Insistent Tide. Heavy on the imagery, this one follows a woman in labour. As a female reader (albeit not one who’s given birth), it struck me in a very violent and emotional way. Indeed, the birth process in this story is very violent and painful. My feminist half wants to point fingers at Lam, the male author, and demand why he insists on laying out every detail of a particularly traumatic event. At first I considered whether it was evidence of some sort of literary male violence against women. I’ve since concluded that it is not. Shock value aside, each and every one of the cases in this book is presented in the starkest of ways – it is, ultimately, what breaths believability into them.

“Bloodletting” was also a short-lived HBO mini-series.

In-keeping with its believability, Lam chose to go full-throttle and use actual medical terms. There’s a glossary at the back of the book, to help the reader if need be. In my opinion, it was helpful but not necessary to the understanding of each story. Like Grey’s Anatomy (sorry, but the comparison begs to be made!) the real drama is happening behind the scenes and not within the medicine itself.

In case sappy TV dramas haven’t already taught us, doctors are only human. Bloodletting portrays them as flawed, unheroic, weak. It’s hard to make a snap judgement about any of the characters, because no one is out-rightly presented as “good” or “bad”. Varied situations portray the same characters in vastly different lights. I’d say that’s what makes this book memorable. I recommend it to anyone who’s up for the challenge.

Life of Pi, Yann Martel

When I heard that Life of Pi was going to become a movie, I knew it was time for me to re-read the 2001 bestseller. I love to re-read good books. In working with this I have an awful memory for the things I read, making it very entertaining for me to go back to a story 8-10 times or so. So when I picked up the book I knew four things: It was well-written, the boy is lost at sea, something about a tiger, and something about meerkats.

Well as usual it was a bit more than that. Even starting with the Author’s Note I was hooked. Martel writes that he was given a grant from the Canadian Council for the Arts, and gratefully traveled to India to write a novel about Portugal in 1939. What he ends up with is something very different

We are introduced to Pi Patel. He seems like a pretty good sort of teenager, but surprisingly one who has, despite being raised in a mostly non-religious family in India, developed a fascination for all faiths. He speaks fondly of the zoo his family runs, his swimming practices, and his devotion to religion, highlighted with a funny moment when his priest, pandit and imam all converge on him at the same time. This may all seem a bit dull, but believe me when I say Martel makes it sound like prose. At the end of Part One we discover that the Patel family will be relocating to Canada, traveling in a cargo ship which will carry many of their animals that are being sold off to a variety of zoos all over the world. Then Part Two starts.

Scheduled for release November 21 2012

Unfortunately this is the type of book where I won’t be giving much away. The surprises are part of the beauty of the story, and Martel has a knack for letting you in on the cliffhangers, yet keeping you glued in till the end. But I will say this: the ship sank, and Pi Patel survives 227 incredible days at sea. With a tiger.

It’s a beautiful story, and Martel has wonderful talent at evoking emotion and humor from his words. Without dragging the story on we can feel Pi’s desperation. Without a movie screen we can see the intense action Pi experiences in his journey. Pi relates his knowledge on training animals, yet it doesn’t disrupt his tale. We find legitimacy in a fantastical event, and though the story holds so much sorrow, we dwell instead on the hope for his survival.  The occasional flash forwards that comes in between chapters were another nice touch, where we get glances of the author interviewing Patel for this story.

This book seems like it should be in a category of its own. It has hints of Jules Verne, but where his stories turned textbookish and a little stale, Life of Pi is soul-searching and emotional. I love that Martel writes this story as it might have been real, adding a whole other dimension to the book. This is definitely a movie I’m looking forward to see this winter!

The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill

The Book of Negroes was released as “Someone Knows My Name” in the USA, Australia, and New Zealand.

It’s been a long time since I last posted a book review but between school, work and just life in general, reading, unfortunately, is sometimes pushed aside. This being said, over the past few months since school ended I’ve read a few books that I’ve enjoyed including “The Birth House” by Ami McKay (a book reviewed by Deborah quite a few months ago) and “The Island” by Victoria Hislop (an easy read about a leper colony  on the island of Spinalonga off the coast of Crete). Although I could rave for ages about how wonderful “The Birth House” was, it is “The Book of Negroes” by Canadian author Lawrence Hill that is deserving of my short but sweet review.

“The Book of Negroes” chronicles the life story of  Aminata Diallo from West Africa. At the age of 11 she is captured by slavers and is shipped to the Americas. Throughout the novel Aminata is introduced to many new things while experiencing the horrors of slavery and living in captivity. Despite her terrible beginnings, Aminata’s life takes unexpected twists and turns, and the story tells of love, migration, abuse, birth, death and culture all through the eyes of a black slave from Africa.

Starting a new book is not always easy for me but after reading a couple of chapters in this novel I was hooked. The writing alone carried the story while the excellent plot, thought provoking subject and well crafted characters made the novel a joy to read. “The Book of Negroes” is a novel that I’ve seen advertised every time I step into a bookstore and after hearing my mom, sisters, extended family and friends rave about it, this book did not disappoint.

What I enjoyed most about “The Book of Negroes” is that Hill exposed a lot of topics, some of which I hadn’t been aware of in the past. He acknowledged that African people were responsible for enslaving and shipping their own people to the Americas. He also wrote about the difference between “African” people and “Negroes” and the way the were treated, something that I had always wondered about. A lot of what Hill wrote was new information to me and I appreciated the historical information that I was able to learn through reading the book.

“The Book of Negroes” is long so when you begin to read it be prepared to sit for quite a while. This being said the book is worth it, taking you on a roller coaster of the past, incorporating American, Canadian, British and African history alike.

My sister once said that the only downfall of this book is that it is written like a memoir yet Aminata Diallo is a fictional character. I think that Aminata’s character, although not completely historically accurate, is a representation of the people that were in her similar situation over 200 years ago. Those people were heroes living in a nightmare, taken from their homes and treated like animals. Thus, by reading this book, Aminata’s character and everything she stood for can also be called heroic and I thank Lawrence Hill for making this even more clear to me through this novel.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Alan Bradley

Doubleday Canada, 2009

Flavia de Luce is the funniest, most precocious little protagonist I’ve read since Scout Finch. And this book, the first in a series, has won over so many fans that she now has her own website!

Set in 1950s England, Flavia, an aspiring chemist of eleven years old, takes it upon herself to solve the mystery behind a dead body she found in her family’s cucumber patch. Determined to find the answers before the police inspector already on the job, she embarks on a secret quest all around town, into the library newspaper reserves, to the candy shop, to the county jail, and an old school. Much time is also spent in her very own laboratory, located in its very own wing in Buckshaw, the de Luce mansion. The adventures she gets up to are hilarious, I can tell you that much. I have to say I’m quite glad this book is only the beginning. Aside from Flavia, who is so funny in her lack of age eleven-ness, the characters in this book are all very distinct and interesting in their own way. While Flavia’s passion is chemistry, her two sisters also have interesting hobbies. Daphne likes reading, and Ophelia likes herself – but they both also like to gang up on Flavia and take revenge at every opportunity. The book starts and ends with the two parties forever retaliating against the other for the most previous heinous act. After having ridden her bike (affectionately named “Gladys”) all over town one day, Flavia trudges into the house only to find her two sisters crying on each other’s shoulders. “We thought you had drowned!” Says Ophelia. “If only it were so!” (This is a paraphrase, but you get the picture). Turns out they weren’t crying about Flavia’s absence, after all. And that pretty much sums up the relationships there. I’m curious to see where they go in further books.

Darkly comedic, well-written, well-paced, and with distinct voice and style, this is a good quick read. I laughed out loud several times, and reveled in several “aha!” moments as the story unfolded. What more should I say? If you haven’t already read it, I give this one a big recommend. Thanks to Tami for recommending it to me!

The Gum Thief, Douglas Coupland

Random House Canada, 2007

The Gum Thief hits every nerve any typical Coupland novel is bound to aim for. Theme-wise, this one is no different from his other works – that’s to say it includes postmodern musings about life and death, apocalypse and end-of-the-world scenarios, quasi-loving relationships between strangers and family, happiness, sadness, and random facts about animals and spleen cancer. Simply put, it’s the same Coupland you’ve read if you’ve read any of his other works. This is not to say I didn’t love it, and in no way is this novel trite. Though his writing talent  sometimes falls by the wayside in unrelated tangents (like what parts of your body would actually disappear in a rapture), Coupland’s ability at navigating complicated plotlines is always forefront. On its most surface level, The Gum Thief is about a middle-aged divorced man named Roger, and a young Goth woman, Bethany, who both work at a Staples. The two share nothing in common – it seems – except tremendous loss and a seeming inability to move forward with their lives. But then, rather by accident, they strike up a pen-pal-like friendship. The whole thing is written as letters between the two, with the occasional additional word from random others. Roger is also writing a novel called Glove Pond, which makes for a complicated story-within-a-story (-within-a-story) narrative.

Coupland is master of the clash of black and white, and works in dichotomies. This is, you’ll learn, typical of his distinct style. His books manage to be simultaneously laugh-out-loud hilarious and soul-crushingly sad; unbelievable, and yet astutely observant of those common real-life experiences that unite the human race. On top of that, I’m always of two minds when reading Coupland’s fiction: am I taking this way too seriously, or am I just scratching the surface of this novel’s meaning? It’s…confusing. And it’s what keeps me coming back, book after gloriously weird book.

For more about the author, his writing, and his visual art, visit his website here.

The Whole Truth, Kit Pearson

HarperCollins Canada, 2011

The cover is what attracted me to this book – obviously I have a thing for bold colour, curly lettering and silhouetted profiles. Thankfully I enjoyed this book more than I did Little Bee!

What can I say? Kit Pearson is a naturally gifted children’s author, a factoid you already know if you’ve read her other works (my favourite is Awake and Dreaming!). While The Whole Truth was a little slow to pick up, the story was just as engrossing as any other Pearson novel. It centres around nine-year-old Polly and her older sister Maud. It is the early 1930’s and they are sent from their home in Winnipeg to live with their Grandmother on the fictional Kingfisher Island off the coast of Vancouver Island. All we know about them is that something strange happened to their father – did he die? Did he disappear? – and we don’t find out till about half way through the book, at which point details are slowly revealed.

I found Polly a perfectly believable little girl, under extraordinary circumstances. The themes running through this mystery story centre around family bonding and loyalty. Polly is constantly challenged in her ability to trust those closest to her, and as we watch her grow up (the story ends when she’s nearing thirteen), we get to see the different ways she chooses to cope with it. Simply put, Polly is typical of her age and that is, I think, what makes this a great book for any adolescent girl.

The ending was a little too neat and had some loose ends, but all in all this is another simple and heartwarming story from a master of our generation.

The Birth House, Ami McKay

Knopf Canada, 2006

Funny, how a book with little plot can be such a page-turner! Ami McKay wrote this novel after discovering that her own home in Scots Bay, Nova Scotia was a ‘birth house’ back around the turn of the century. I love the idea that her curiosity about real events led to this charming fiction.

The story centres around Dora, a young protégé midwife who’s forced to carry on the tradition alone, after her mentor, an equal-parts religious and superstitious spinster mysteriously disappears (we can only assume she died, but we don’t know how or where – cue creepy music). Dora’s goal to help the women of the Bay, however, is only made more difficult with the town’s arrival of the fancy new Dr. Thomas, intent on peddling new birthing technologies like chloroform and forceps (cue more creepy music). While the overall story is heart warming and charming (it’s creatively interwoven to include straight narrative alongside newspaper articles and clippings, letters, and journal entries), it’s also pretty compelling thanks to its Gothic undertone (think Phantom of the Opera, Jane Eyre, or Wuthering Heights).

This tone comes with the territory of the subject matter: women used to have their babies in the most natural of ways (listening to their bodies, rather than their doctors) – and now they don’t, as much. We now live in a highly medicalized society, but we’re starting to turn, once again, to more natural (and, in a lot of ways, safer) birthing methods. Because The Birth House is set in a time when all this was changing, when new thinking said it was a good thing to pass out and have absolutely no memory of your child’s birth (as Dr. Thomas claims), there is a naturally ominous feel to this book. And it’s a good thing! I want to emphasize my belief that there’s a time and a place for natural versus medical childbirths – women now have the option to go one way or another based on their birthing needs and circumstances, and I’m behind that. (I think most reasonable people would be.) But we should still be active thinkers when it comes to things that affect us so directly. That  is what makes The Birth House so powerful – no matter your final stance on the very controversial child birthing-opinions-spectrum, it gets you thinking, because it gets under your skin a little bit.