Review | The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy

32388712It seems almost blasphemous to admit I didn’t like Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. I absolutely adored her earlier novel The God of Small Things when I read it for university years ago, and I was looking forward to reading the story that compelled her return to fiction after twenty years.

In many ways, Ministry of Utmost Happiness feels like an important novel — it spans multiple generations and touches on some significant points of India’s past. There are parts where freedom fighters are imprisoned by a corrupt government and must negotiate their way back to freedom, and I found these chapters particularly strong. These chapters reminded me a bit of Martial Law novels from the Philippines, and I can only imagine how much more impactful they would have been on me if I were more familiar with India’s history. This also happens to be one of several subplots in the novel, all of which depict individual lives within the context of a broader socio-cultural milieu.

Roy is a tremendously talented writer and her language throughout the novel is simply beautiful. Even at sections where my attention flagged, I had to appreciate the cadence of her prose.

Despite all that, I found the book a struggle to read. The review on the blog Sukasa Reads notes that “the onus is on the reader to care but it’s akin to wading through the flora and fauna of a wild jungle without a machete,” and I think that encapsulates much of the problem I had in reading this book. It just felt heavy throughout, likely deliberately so given the significance of the subjects Roy covers, and to Roy’s credit, the novel feels important without feeling self-important. But it is a slog to get through.

There’s a quote on the back cover of the book:

How to tell a shattered story?

By slowly becoming everybody.

No.

By slowly becoming everything.

That’s what the story feels like. The interactions and scenes with the characters all feel momentous, and likely other readers may care enough to pick through the threads and find a wealth of insight beyond the surface. I tried, but there was just so much going on and so many disparate pieces of plot that didn’t quite seem to connect that it just ended up not feeling worth the effort.

There are some lovely moments throughout. I love the character of Saddam, how he was blinded by the glare of the sun’s reflection all because his boss made him work long hours and wouldn’t allow him to wear sunglasses at work nor look away. I love that he chose his name because he admired and was inspired by Saddam Hussein’s dignified pride at his own execution without knowing, or really caring much about, the broader circumstances that led to this execution. I love the activism of Tilo and how her romantic history influenced her political life. I liked the scene of groups of protestors convening at a single plaza, and the idea of someone being hired to ensure people pay the fee to use the single toilet.

I don’t quite understand the story of the two babies nor the story of Anjum, and there were parts I ended up just skimming over, so there are likely large chunks of the story I don’t understand. I also don’t quite know how everything intersects.

I’m glad I finished the book because my favourite parts involving Tilo’s story are near the end, but it was a struggle to get through. There may be readers who’ll find themselves caught up in the language, and able to parse through the various threads to find the brilliance of what Roy is trying to say. Then there are readers like me for whom it just ends up not worth the effort.

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

Review | The Lying Game, Ruth Ware

32895291The least Agatha Christie-ish of Ruth Ware’s books, The Lying Game is an entertaining psychological thriller about the secrets from the past coming back to haunt us. The Lying Game isn’t quite as tense as In A Dark, Dark Wood, nor as gripping as The Woman in Cabin 10; rather it touches on a more subtle emotional tension.  It all begins with a text message, stating simply “I need you,” that brings together old friends Isa, Kate, Thea and Fatima back to the town of Salten, where they all attended boarding school almost 20 years ago.

I’m a sucker for boarding school stories, and I love the strong bond between the characters even after so many years apart, which reminds me a lot of the friendships I formed back in high school. The title comes from a game the girls played in school, where they gave each other points for making people outside their circle believe the most outrageous lies. It’s a silly game that backfires, and when the girls are expelled in their final year of school, the reputation they’ve built through the game comes back to haunt them.

The reason behind the expulsion is teased throughout the story, as are the circumstances behind the mysterious death of Kate’s father, who also happens to be the school’s art teacher. Something the women did while they were in school is now under threat of being exposed, and puts the lives they’ve since built at risk. There are a lot of Ware’s signature twists and turns. I found that the big reveal wasn’t as hard to figure out as in her previous novels, but it was still a fun ride.

I also liked a lot of the characters, and seeing how whatever happened in school impacted all of them. Group leader Thea turned to alcohol for comfort, and her vibrancy as a teen turned into an almost bitter desperation in adulthood. Fatima became a doctor and started a family, but as Thea rightly points out, there’s a rigidity to Fatima’s perspective now, a loss of the innocent fun she had as a girl. Kate was the only one in the group to remain in Salten after the expulsion, and her decision to stay in a town where everyone knew and gossiped about her history reveals the depth of her story far beyond what even her friends know.

My big frustration was with the main character Isa. First, she has a super sweet and supportive husband in Owen. He is curious and interested without being pushy and I often wanted to give Isa a stern talking-to and demand she just tell him the truth already. Even if she can’t reveal her friends’ secret, she could at least give him some innocuous details about her visit to Salten without being super defensive every time he brings up the subject. At one point, she receives flowers from Kate’s brother, and when Owen asks who they were from, Isa clams up and gets angry, when it would have been so simple to just say the truth: that Kate’s brother was apologizing for something he did over the weekend.

Worse, Isa constantly puts herself and her baby in danger, and not just because she is forced by circumstances, but because she makes illogical decisions. For example, in one scene, she is with her baby about to take a train out of Salten when she learns something major and potentially dangerous. Instead of taking the train back to safety and regrouping from there, she decides to go stay in Salten and confront the very source of the potential danger. It’s like those characters in horror movies who see a scary house and decide to enter and everyone watching is screaming at them to leave, except in this case, the character has already escaped the house and left the neighbourhood and is deciding to go back. It makes sense for the story, because it eventually led to the big climax, but it was a seriously stupid decision, especially since she had her baby with her.

Overall, it was a fun read, and I look forward to Ware’s next book.

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Thank you to Simon Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Child, Fiona Barton

32054095When the bones of a small child are found at a demolition site in London, journalist Kate Waters latches on to the opportunity for an exciting scoop. As she begins asking questions around the neighbourhood, long-buried secrets and family scandals are brought to light.

The Child is told from the perspectives of four women — Kate, who wants to protect her job at the newspaper from the increasing demand for immediate but shallow online content; Angela, whose baby was kidnapped in the 1970s and never found; Emma, a recluse with mental health conditions who becomes invested in Kate’s story; and Emma’s mother Jude who is trying to mend her strained relationship with her daughter.

It’s a much more traditional thriller than The Widow, but shares the earlier book’s fascination with women’s motivations for seemingly inexplicable and at times horrifying actions. I thought The Child had a faster clip and a much tighter feel.

I really enjoyed reading this book. Barton’s writing is strong and the characters are well-crafted. I especially connected with Angela’s story, and wish she had played a bigger role throughout the story. The big reveal isn’t too difficult to figure out; it seemed fairly clear where the story was heading by about the 3/4 mark, but that didn’t detract from the reading experience. As with The Widow, it’s not so much the initial mystery of the baby’s skeleton that drives the narrative as it is seeing how the various characters interact and why they make the choices they do.

The Child is a solid character-driven thriller that’ll keep you entertained on a summer weekend.

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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.

Review | Into the Water, Paula Hawkins

33151805For Into the Water, Hawkins pulls back the tight focus she used in Girl on the Train and takes on the perspectives of an entire town responding to the mysterious death of one of their residents.

I absolutely loved Girl on the Train, with its tight, claustrophobic feel that constantly keeps the reader shifting on unstable ground, as the main character herself questions the things she sees. Into the Water didn’t come close to that level of impact. The multiple perspectives detached me somewhat from the story, and while Nel’s death is sad and mysterious, it never quite felt immediate nor urgent. Some of the characters were interesting, but the switching perspectives and multiple story-lines just made it confusing and kinda muddled at times.

Hawkins tries very hard to make this story bigger than it actually is, but doesn’t quite deliver on the epic proportions she seems to aim for. For example, the death occurs in the Drowning Pool, a spot along the river where multiple women have drowned in the past, and which Hawkins not-very-subtly links thematically to the Salem witch trials. Nel’s death, and the deaths of at least one other woman in the town’s history, are thus tied in some way to men’s fear of their power as women, and Hawkins’ descriptions of the drownings hammer us over the head with this point. Unfortunately, she doesn’t quite follow through on this theme. The actual motives for the murders are prosaic in comparison, and any connection to Salem fizzles out.

At its core, the story has promise — a troubled writer dies in a river, and her sister and daughter aren’t quite sure if she jumped or was pushed. Either option is linked to a story she’s working on that threatens to reveal deeply held secrets in her small town. Hawkins expands the scope dramatically, by introducing a large cast of characters and trying to hype up the “small town holds deep, dark secrets” trope. Unfortunately, the perspective is too wide for the “deep, dark secrets” to feel truly menacing, and while the townspeople are interesting, none of them are very actually memorable. The big reveal wasn’t as shocking as I’d imagined, and the villain is big and bad, but in a blunt hammer kind of way and nowhere near as chilling as the one in Girl on the Train.

Overall, it was not a bad book. The writing is good and the story is interesting. It just wasn’t as good as Girl on the Train, and I wish she’d employed a similar tight focus on this story. There was also one intriguing unanswered question (what did Lena do with the nail?).

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

5 Must-Read Books with Deaf Characters

 

Ever since I watched Why Not Theatre’s excellent ASL/English Prince Hamlet a few months ago, I’ve been on the lookout for other examples of Deaf representation in arts and culture. As a bookworm, my interest naturally fell on finding books that featured Deaf characters or touched upon Deaf Culture.

I should point out that I’m not Deaf, CODA nor hard of hearing, so I’m in no way an expert on how good or how problematic a book is when representing Deaf Culture. That being said, below are books I’ve recently discovered and enjoyed. Most of my online searches for books on Deaf Culture and about Deaf characters often showed only academic texts or children’s books teaching the ASL alphabet, so I hope compiling this list will help other interested bookworms find their next read.

Finally — I’m always looking for my next great read. If you know of any fantastic titles I can add to this list, let me know!

1. El Deafo by Cece Bell

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A birthday gift from a friend, this adorable graphic memoir is by turns hilarious and bittersweet. Based in part on the author’s own experiences of growing up, El Deafo is about a young bunny, Cece, who is the only deaf kid at her new school. Cece creates a superhero persona ‘El Deafo’ to gain confidence when trying to make new friends, and uses the super-powered hearing from her Phonic Ear to help her classmates keep out of trouble. See my full review here.

2. Signs of Attraction by Laura Brown

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A deaf/hard of hearing college student falls in love with the hot deaf guy in her class. Carli has hidden her deafness all her life, and I love how her relationship with Reed helps her come to terms with her deafness, feel okay with needing CART services or close captioning, and learn ASL. The story was a lot more intense than the light-hearted romance I expected (content warning: child abuse, violence against women, suicide), and there were plot threads that I wish had been explored more (Reed’s birth father, Carli’s mother and sisters), but overall, I really liked this book.

I also love how signs are depicted in this book – most of the signed conversations are depicted in italics, but because Carli is just beginning to learn sign language, whenever characters use signs that she hasn’t learned yet, the author also describes the gesture. The scenes involving the sign for “falling in love” are particularly squee-worthy.

The author is hard of hearing and her next book Friend (with Benefits) Zone features two Deaf main characters.

3. Five Flavors of Dumb by Antony John

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This funny, hipsterish middle-grade/young adult story is about a deaf teenage girl who accepts a dare to become the manager of her high school band ‘Dumb’ and land them a paying gig within a month. Fuelled mostly by passion, Dumb is great at making noise but horrible at actually creating music together. Piper’s efforts to enforce harmony amongst the members often go hilariously awry, but the novel’s heart lies in the characters’ sincere love for music, and Piper’s realization that being a good manager goes beyond just making the next quick buck.

I also really liked the family dynamics. A decision by Piper’s parents leads to a major turning point in her relationship with them, her rebellious younger brother turns out to be a staunch ally, and she confronts her complex emotions about her baby sister having cochlear implants.

4. Finding Zoe: A Deaf Woman’s Journey of Love, Identity, and Adoption by Brandi Rarus and Gail Harris

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Brandi Rarus came of age at a very exciting time in Deaf history – she was a college student during the Gallaudet University 1988 student and faculty protest for a Deaf President, and ended up marrying one of the student leaders Tim Rarus. I loved learning about her life and seeing this period from her perspective as a deaf woman who grew up oral in a hearing household. For example, she writes about how Tim snubbed her at their first meeting because, having grown up in a multi-generational Deaf family, he viewed her as “too oral.”

The section about Zoe was the final third of the book, and I liked that Rarus featured the perspectives of the multiple people involved in the adoption, including Zoe’s birth parents and the family who had originally intended to adopt her. Rarus’ love for her child and joy over welcoming Zoe into their family is beautiful and heartwarming, but I felt bad for Zoe’s birth father. BJ wanted to raise his daughter and his parents had promised their support, but the birth mother Jess refused to give Zoe up to him (because it meant that she didn’t want her child, whereas giving the child up to a two-parent household meant “giving the child a better life”), and the adoption counselor eventually strong-armed him into agreeing that a traditional two-parent household (“with a mother and a father”) would be best. Even Jess’ decision to give up her child was heavily influenced by her religious mother, who basically convinced her that raising the child herself doomed Jess and the baby to a lifetime on welfare whereas adoption was presented in ridiculously fairy tale-like terms.

5. Seeing Voices by Oliver Sacks

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I discovered this book at a local bookstore and thought it was a great introduction to Deaf history. I was fascinated to learn about sign language’s roots in indigenous languages within the Deaf community, which developed as a natural form of communication despite attempts to teach Deaf people speech. I was also horrified to learn about the violence in forcing Deaf children to learn spoken languages, which delays their introduction to education in other areas.

I hadn’t realized that Sign Language used to be viewed by hearing people as only a gestural adaptation of English, until linguist William Stokoe argued about ASL having a linguistic structure and therefore being a language in its own right. I also hadn’t realized that Gallaudet University, which I’ve heard is one of the best post-secondary school for Deaf students, has had only hearing presidents until the late 1980s. Sacks covers the Deaf President Now protests, from a more detached yet detailed perspective than Rarus did, and that was my favourite part of this book.

Review | The Only Child, Andrew Pyper

32620376I’m a huge fan of Andrew Pyper’s work, but The Only Child wasn’t my favourite of his works. At first glance, the story seemed right up my alley — Lily, a psychiatrist, meets Michael, a man who claims to be the inspiration for Frankenstein’s monster and other characters from Victorian horror fiction. He also claims to be Lily’s father.

I usually love Pyper’s brand of literary horror, and his skill at calling upon elements of classical literature or mythology to formulate his contemporary stories. The Only Child, however, wasn’t quite as tightly woven as his other works. The beginning was weak, and the monster and situation weren’t quite as menacing as they could have been, given the premise. There were a couple of moments of gross violence, but otherwise, the book lacked the sense of all-pervasive danger that made Pyper’s other works so compelling.

Lily finds herself drawn to Michael, but given the possibility that he’s her father, it just created a weirdly incestuous sexual tension vibe that was just plain icky. As well, Michael wasn’t at all a charismatic enough character to make the attraction believable, or to make him a truly menacing figure. I like the traces of vulnerability in Michael, and his desire to “only connect,” as E.M. Forster once wrote, but this vulnerability wasn’t so much explored as simply expressed. It’s as if Pyper couldn’t quite decide if Michael was an evil or sympathetic character, and the result was a watered down muddle of both.

The story did get better as it went on, and I thought the ending was strong. Most of it, however, just felt jumbled, with Pyper attempting to squeeze in as many classical horror references as he could. Andrew Pyper is always an entertaining writer, but this wasn’t quite as compelling for me as his other works.

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Thank you to Simon Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Waking Gods, Sylvain Neuvel

30134847In Waking Godsgiant alien robots land in urban centres around the world. If that premise intrigues you, you should definitely give Sylvain Neuvel’s Themis Files trilogy (Waking Gods is Book 2) a try. Part of me is in total nerd heaven at the premise of this book — it’s not the military who can save us from the giant alien robots, but rather scientists. The military are all ready and eager to open fire and save the world, but it’s a task force led by a scientist who is tasked with coming up with a solution. Due to events in Book 1: Sleeping Giants, scientists have already been studying one of these giant alien robots for years, after a similar robot was discovered buried in the ground by Rose, the lead scientist on the project, when she was a little girl. Based on their study, they’ve managed to make the older robot functional, and it just needs two people in particular (a man and a woman with will-they-won’t-they romance) to operate it.

So far, so awesome. I personally would have preferred a bit more science in it. I was really excited that the solution seemed to be more an intellectual puzzle than just a straightforward action-packed battle, and in a way, this was the case as the big reveal that led to the solution had to do with science-related stuff. But most of the novel read like a Transformers movie, with stuff blowing up and teams of nameless good guys running right into the thick of danger. It’s fun and fast-paced action, and likely I wouldn’t have enjoyed too much hard-core science either, but in the beginning, I was expecting something more like Michael Crichton’s books, where there’s just enough scientific discussion to geek out over while still being accessible to non-scientists. Instead, the scientific and philosophical points here were quick throwaway lines, which makes sense given the urgency of their situation, but felt less exciting.

I’m also not a big fan of the style in which the story was told. Because there are so many characters, and lots of the chapters are told in unattributed dialogue, I found the middle of the story really confusing. I couldn’t understand what was happening, and at times, it felt like nothing significant was happening, which made the middle of the story feel really slow for me. The final third or so was the best part, where the pace finally picked up and it became an action-packed thrillfest. I compared the book earlier to a Transformers movie, and in a way, I think I would have enjoyed it more as a movie. The action scenes seem like they’d be a lot of fun to watch on-screen, and being able to put faces to the characters will be much more preferable to all the unattributed dialogue where the characters all end up sounding alike.

If you’ve read and enjoyed Sleeping Giants, you’ll likely enjoy this as well, as it significantly advances the stories of at least three of the main characters. If you enjoy giant alien robots and exciting action scenes, the final third alone makes reading the book worth it. I personally wanted more: the characters felt mostly flat, and the aliens’ motivation was fascinating but not quite as groundbreaking and impactful as I think it was meant to be. The story ended with a cliffhanger, setting up a whole new adventure for our main characters in Book 3. I’m afraid I just don’t care enough about any of the characters to be interested in what happens to them next.

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