Review | Prospect Avenue: Border City Blues, Michael Januska

28388392In Prospect Avenue, bootlegger Jack McCloskey rescues the survivor of a bad smuggling deal and gets caught up in a series of murders. From the cover and the description, I’d initially expected classic crime noir along the lines of Raymond Chandler — Januska’s style isn’t quite as hard-boiled. Rather, the book reminded me a lot of Boardwalk Empire, so if you enjoyed that TV show, you should definitely check this book out.

I admit it’s not really my type of story, and while I enjoyed parts of the book, I never really got hooked by it. But I think that’s mostly a matter of my preference rather than anything about the book at all, because the writing was strong.

I like the light humour sprinkled throughout the book. In particular, McCloskey’s girlfriend Vera Maude provides a bit of welcome comic relief as she plans a wedding and reluctantly allows McCloskey to give her a driving lesson.

I also like how the book confronts the racism of its time. The man McCloskey rescues is Chinese, and McCloskey tries to give him a more stable future by getting him a job at a Chinese restaurant. Characters taste Chinese food for the first time, and I like how Januska shows their wariness at the unfamiliar flavours, and also how they end up enjoying some of the dishes without over-the-top exclaiming at the wonders of this new cuisine. There were characters who were being racist, and McCloskey calls them out, but in a way that still felt realistic to the time period. It’s how I imagine many Americans probably did respond when Chinese restaurants began opening up in the country, and I like that Januska acknowledges the problematic attitudes of the time without making the characters feel too modern.

McCloskey as well is an interesting character. I like how he clearly enjoys his job and is good at it, but is also trying to work his way toward a more legitimate business. It’s one of my favourite tropes in this genre, and makes for a compelling character arc.

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Thanks to Dundurn Press for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Convenience Store Woman, Sayata Murata (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori)

36739755Convenience Store Woman is short and powerful, about a 36 y/o woman who has never quite fit in, and a risk she takes to try for a “normal” life.

From the blurb, I’d expected Keiko to be socially awkward, but I love that she actually had zero clue about social / emotional / moral convention, yet actually cared about fitting in. For example, as a child, while her classmates were crying over a dead bird, Keiko thought it would be good yakitori for her father. And later, when two boys in her class got into a fistfight, and her classmates were screaming for someone to stop them, Keiko knocked one unconscious. So there’s a cold logic to her actions (chickens are birds, and knocking the boy out did stop the fight), but Keiko honestly couldn’t comprehend why people are so horrified by her.

So she spends her childhood keeping as low a profile as possible to avoid saying or doing the wrong thing, and then at 18, she finds a job at a convenience store and realizes she’s found the perfect fit. At the convenience store, there are rules that dictate how to behave and scripts that tell you what to say. At the convenience store, Keiko finally fits in, or at least knows how to fake being like everyone else.

But 18 years later, her part-time job is no longer enough for her family and friends, and her single status is earning her odd looks. So when she meets a single man looking for a wife, she thinks she’s found the perfect solution.

I loved this book so much. For all her unusual behaviour, Keiko is actually a very relatable, loveable character, and every time someone made her question her life choices, I just wanted to give her a hug. The guy she meets is a total asshole and deadbeat who is so not worthy of any woman — and I think many readers will agree pretty soon after he appears. I hated him so much. The way he spoke to Keiko (e.g. How lucky she is to have him because her womb is all shrivelled up and no one would want her) made my blood boil, and the way characters draw parallels between them (simply because they’re both single, in their 30s and somewhat odd) made me want to cry.

This book is a helluva punch, and it’s so beautifully written — tremendous emotion barely contained by the narrator’s detached language. It’s a wake up call to readers to question our relationship with social norms, and how we respond to people who don’t quite conform to expectations. Can one be happy without being “normal”?

The characters in this book ask Keiko some personal questions (even her co-workers) that may be easy to North American readers to dismiss as being culturally specific to Japan. (And certainly, some of her manager’s questions may get him fired in Canada.) But think about how people respond to adults who choose to remain single, or couples who choose to remain childless. This book will make you think hard about your assumptions about how happy such individuals are.

Convenience Store Woman is such an incredible book, and a fun read. I highly recommend it.

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

Review | The Oyster Thief, Sonia Faruqi

36327121I absolutely adored Sonia Faruqi’s The Oyster ThiefFrom the description at the Penguin Random House Canada’s fall preview (my livetweet: “Ecological & whimsical fantasy about a mermaid & a human man & ocean conservation”), I was expecting The Little Mermaid but with adult characters and a bit of an environmental message. The Oyster Thief turned out to be so much more than I expected, and I cannot recommend this book enough. The world building is beautiful, the story is compelling, and the cover is simply stunning.

The Oyster Thief is about Coralline, a shy mermaid apprentice doctor (they’re called something else in mermaid world, but basically, she’s a healer) who embarks on a quest for a mythical elixir to save her little brother’s life. Her brother is dying because of an oil spill (what mermaids call “black poison”) from a human corporation Ocean Dominion (who is as evil as its name suggests). This isn’t the first time Ocean Dominion has messed with Coralline’s world — her father, a coral scientist, also lost his hand because of a human explosive — so Coralline has good reason to distrust the human world.

At Ocean Dominion is Izar, a human engineer who is tasked with creating “underwater fire” so that Ocean Dominion can mine for jewels at the bottom of the ocean. Izar was raised to believe that merpeople killed his parents, so he has no compunction about destroying their home. At least until he is kidnapped, drowned, then mysteriously transforms into a merman and meets Coralline. Izar hopes the mythical elixir will help him regain his legs, and so joins Coralline on her quest.

There is a romance, but it’s much less prominent than I expected, and while I was looking forward to a lush underwater fantasy romance, I actually wasn’t too disappointed this time. Because the environmental aspect was much stronger than I expected. There’s also a lot of science nerdiness in the story, which I absolutely adored — random things like how seahorses like Coralline’s father’s best friend swim sideways rather than forward, and how it’s male seahorses who become pregnant (the seahorse joins Coralline on her quest, so his pregnancy adds some urgency to getting back home safely). And if you google the term “oyster thief”, you’ll learn it’s a beautiful botanical symbol for freedom and free-spiritedness. (Faruqi describes it beautifully near the end of the book, but really, this book just makes me want to learn all sorts of stuff about ocean life.) And there’s also a lot of important commentary about things like discrimination, racism, corporate greed and most importantly, humanity’s role in destroying our natural world and our corresponding responsibility to do something about it.

I also love the character of Coralline. She really grows within this story, and I love that she doesn’t have any super magical abilities, but rather needs to learn to trust in her own skill and professional instincts as a healer. She learns her trade much like us regular humans do, and it’s ultimately her intelligence that gets her through. Izar is also a fantastically developed character — I love his character arc as he learns about his past and confronts his long-held prejudices.

That being said, the other characters often felt a bit two-dimensional. In particular, for all the woman power awesomeness for Coralline, the villainous women felt a bit stereotypical “mean girls”, like the beautiful mermaid trying to steal Coralline’s boyfriend, the snobby mother of Coralline’s boyfriend, and Coralline’s own mother who’s a bit like Elizabeth Bennet’s mother but more scheming.

There are also times when I wish the author had delved a bit more into the nuances and complexities of emotions characters experience and the challenges they face. For example, a major climactic sequence as Coralline and Izar enter the dark depths of the ocean felt like it was resolved really quickly. The story also felt a bit young at times, possibly due to the cutesy character names (though, as they’re based on marine science stuff, they do make sense).

Still, and most importantly, I couldn’t put this book down. Faruqi is a gifted storyteller, and I was absolutely captivated by this story and by the world she’s created. I love the way she weaves in real-life issues like oil spills and underwater mining within such a rich and imaginative fantasy adventure, and I want more, please. The ending sets up the potential for a sequel and I’ll definitely be checking that out.

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