Review | Mariposa Gang and Other Stories, Catherine Torres

30278713The stories in Catherine Torres’ Mariposa Gang and Other Stories are wistful, and also rather sad. They are about Filipinos whose dreams don’t quite work out the way they intended.

At her best, Torres’ stories leave the reader feeling totally gutted yet not completely sure we know why. Her writing is subtle and restrained, peppered with casually mentioned imagery that evokes a depth and complexity of emotions just beyond our grasp. Take for example the title story “Mariposa Gang,” about a man in Bilibid Prison who joins a volunteer team to capture exotic butterflies for scientific study. One of his fellow prisoners ends up accidentally crushing a butterfly, and other prisoners find butterflies that aren’t actually rare and must therefore be discarded. We later learn the man’s backstory, how he worked on a ship and learned that his daughter had died while he was away. The circumstances of the daughter’s death, and the fallout from the event, are both realistic and tragic. The symbolism of butterflies and its connection to the man and his daughter are hardly obscure, but the image of the crushed wings and the discarded bodies resonate long after the story ends.

Another favourite story for me is “The Bag Lady,” which isn’t quite as heavy on symbolism, but is masterful in its handling of intense emotions. The eponymous Bag Lady is Alice, a former saleswoman with dreams of marrying rich, who ends up marrying a man who’d duped her about the level of his wealth. She ends up working as a domestic helper in Singapore, where she rummages through trash bins for discarded treasures and keeps them stored in her room. What happens to her collection, and later on to her marriage, is heart wrenching yet written with little overt emotion. The result leaves us wanting more — not so much in terms of exposition, but more so in terms of justice and some form of happiness for Alice’s future.

Some stories fell flat for me. Sometimes, it was because it was a tad too obvious, like “Blown Glass”, about a domestic helper and her employer’s Murano vase. The symbolism there was so heavy handed it just left me cold. Other times, I just didn’t connect with the characters nor care about their stories. This was true for “The Sema”, about a love triangle that features a unique ice cream flavour, and “Man of the Cloth”, about a man who becomes a priest. And still other times, I was pretty invested in the story, but the end left me confused about what the point of it all was. This was particularly true for “Mannequins”, about a roommate situation that veered somewhat into gritty crime fiction near the end.

Still, these are minor hiccups in an altogether strong collection. As an immigrant myself, I related hard to “Hibernation”, about an old professor who was abroad during the EDSA Revolution and is compelled to return home for EDSA Dos. And after so many tales of broken dreams, “Cafe Masala” was a wonderful relief. It’s a heartwarming and hopeful story about a woman who dreams of opening a cafe, and the ways in which her relationships with her mother and with her husband help her take a step closer towards this dream. I love the lighthearted banter between husband and wife, and the love they clearly share even when they go through communication snags.

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Thank you to the author for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | There’s a Word for That, Sloane Tanen

41155074I expected this book to be funny, but I don’t think I quite expected it to move me as much as it did. There’s a Word for That brings disparate family members together in a high-end rehab clinic and, as can be imagined, old hurts are brought to the surface and long-simmering tensions lead to major drama. All of this is prime material for a hilarious sitcom. One can just about imagine the memes that can come from the scene where Marty, a retired LA film producer whose fortune is slowly being eaten away by his long string of girlfriends, realizes that the newest addition to his therapy group in rehab is none other than his ex-wife Bunny Small, a world-renowned children’s book author whom he hasn’t seen in decades. Yet while Tanen does deliver some laugh out loud moments and some delightfully comedic situations, she also takes us deep into the heart of her characters and makes us care.

I love how complex the character are and how nuanced their relationships were with each other. For example, Bunny is estranged from her son Henry. We can’t help but sympathize with Henry, who grew up under the shadow of sharing a name with his mother’s famous hero (when he initially introduces himself to Marty’s daughter Janine, she thinks he’s giving a fake name) and who also has difficulty dealing with his mother’s alcoholism. But by the same token, we also can’t help but feel for Bunny, who, for all her success, is desperately lonely, and wants nothing more than to connect with her son.

I also love the two pairs of sisters with intense rivalries — Marty’s daughters Janine and Amanda, and Amanda’s daughters Hailey and Jaycee. Janine and Hailey are probably the easier to relate to — both grow up being told that their sibling is by far the prettier one, and both feel like they lost out on their parents’ love as a result of this. I love the parallels in their storylines — Janine is a former child star who now struggles to find work and Hailey is determined to become an actress against her mother’s wishes — and I also love how their similarities forge a bond between them.  But most of all, I love that Amanda and Jaycee aren’t the stereotypically mean pretty girls. There’s a great moment when Jaycee does something drastic to cover up a mistake Hailey made, and rather than acknowledging her sister’s kindness, Hailey instead resents that after the situation settles down, things seem to work out better for Jaycee than for her. I love that because even though we may more easily relate to Janine and Hailey’s situation, Tanen calls us out on the role we can sometimes play in causing the injustices and hurts we experience.

Less successful is the romance between Janine and Henry. It was cute, and kinda sweet, but it also fell short when compared to the emotional resonance of the other relationships. The family relationships struck me as particularly strong, but I also really like the friendship that develops between Marty and Bunny in rehab. Even though they hadn’t spoken in decades, and there’s little hint of a romantic spark, I love how they very clearly still care for each other.

Tanen keeps the story pretty lighthearted throughout. As a result, some of the relationships and emotional notes don’t quite go as deep as they could have. But I think it still worked overall. I really enjoyed getting to know these characters. I loved watching them grow together, and deal with all the stuff life tends to throw at us. At its heart, this book is about family, and while it may seem pithy to say, the story is a moving exploration of the ways in which families can break apart for years yet pull together when it really matters.

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Thank you to Hachette Book Group Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Keep You Close, Karen Cleveland

41753974Keep You Close is a taut and thrilling page turner that challenges us to consider: how far would you go to protect someone you love? Stephanie Maddox is an FBI agent and single mother who learns that her teenage son Zach is being investigated by a colleague for potential involvement with a terrorist group. Her duty as an FBI agent dictates that she stay out of the investigation completely, but her love for her son makes that impossible.

I enjoyed this book. It’s not quite as gripping as the author’s earlier novel Need to Know, but Cleveland is a talented storyteller, and drops just enough clues and red herrings along the way to keep me invested in the outcome. Mostly, though, the strength of this book is in its protagonist. Despite her high-powered job and unusual circumstances, Stephanie is a very relatable woman. I love how her investigation into her son’s case slowly unearths the possibility that her career may be directly responsible for the current situation. Without spoiling anything, Stephanie works in the Internal Affairs division, which understandably puts a target on her back from some of her colleagues. She has also used her professional position in the past to go after Zach’s father, a rapist and a powerful man with ties to organized crime. The twists and red herrings did feel a bit much after a while, and part of me wished the story had kept a narrower focus, but I like the emotional arc of Stephanie’s fear that her son may be an innocent victim of her choices.

I do wish Stephanie had a bit more uncertainty about Zach’s innocence throughout the novel. Instead, apart from a few niggling doubts here and there, she seems almost fully convinced of his innocence and the story spirals out more into her investigation into past enemies. Some things do happen, particularly near the end, that somewhat complicate Zach’s role in the whole affair, but I think fewer red herrings and a tighter focus on the particulars of Zach’s case would have built up to this emotional payoff much more powerfully.

Overall, this is an entertaining read, and a fun thriller. In my review for Need to Know, I mentioned how much I loved the way Cleveland shows her protagonist balancing the professional and personal parts of her life, and I thought Keep You Close tackles this same theme in a different way.

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Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.