Review | The Quiet is Loud, by Samantha Garner

QuietIsLoudCoverSometimes, I come across a novel that just hits several of my reader sweet spots during a particular point in time, and I just fall absolutely in love with it. The Quiet is Loud hits a few of my sweet spots right off the bat — it’s speculative fiction with angsty X-Men vibes, and it explores themes of identity, family, and belonging from the perspective of a Filipino-Canadian main character. Even better, I came across this book when I started becoming interested in reading tarot cards myself, so I super nerded out over all the scenes where the heroine interprets tarot cards.

The Quiet is Loud tells the story of Freya Tanangco, a Canadian of Filipino and Norwegian heritage, and a tarot card reader blessed/cursed with visions of the future. She keeps this ability under wraps, partly because people with special abilities, called vekers, are considered dangerous and ostracized (hello, X-Men vibes!), but also partly because she’s dealing with the trauma of having predicted her own mom’s death at the age of 10 (hello, angsty superhero origin story!). An online tarot reading leads Freya to connect with a group of other vekers, and the story unfurls in complex layers that explore themes of identity, heritage, family, and community. The novel contains compelling characters, an engrossing story, lots of stuff to unpack and lots of Filipino food descriptions to enjoy, and I absolutely loved it.

Strongly interwoven into Freya’s journey of self-discovery is the complicated relationship she has with her father, a literary fiction writer most famous for his novel about growing up Filipino in a mostly white community. Entitled Kuya (older brother), the novel thoroughly mines his younger sister’s history of alcoholism for trauma material, and given how much hate vekers face in society, Freya is understandably wary about her own experiences being exploited for a future novel. Veker abilities are a springboard into themes of family and belonging — Freya balances her human concerns with the complexities of being a veker, much as she embodies multiple lived identities as Filipino, Norwegian, and Canadian, and also much as her own father struggles between telling the stories he knows as a Filipino in Canada, and not being pigeonholed into telling only Filipino stories.

Freya’s father, while in many ways the villain, and more a spectre than an active actor in many of the scenes, is a fascinating character. He’s fiercely proud of his Filipino heritage, but there’s almost a sense of desperation in his fervour. There’s a great scene, somewhat late in the book, where Freya and her father are in a Filipino restaurant, and he has to admit his Tagalog is limited, as is his knowledge of some of the dishes on display. Up until that point, Freya’s father was portrayed as being super enthusiastic about Filipino food and stories from Philippine mythology, but it didn’t really twig for me what had felt off about his enthusiasm until that restaurant scene.

As someone who grew up in the Philippines, when I read the restaurant scene, I found myself shifting from Freya’s perspective to the restaurant owner’s, with the stark recognition, “He’s from here (Canada).” It cast the earlier scenes where he spoke of his love for Filipino food and stories in a new light for me, and even though I technically always knew he’d grown up in Canada, that restaurant scene made palpable for me all the various complexities of ‘Filipino’-ness that Garner explores in her novel. There’s Freya herself, who’s biracial and Canadian from birth, and engages with bits of her Filipino heritage almost at a distance — they’re there, and part of who she is, but not necessarily things she thinks about often. There’s her father, who grew up with immigrant parents in a mostly white community, dealing with hyper-visibility due to the colour of his skin, and grappling with the fierce desire to claim both Filipino-ness and Canadian-ness as his own. And then there’s the reader — my ‘Filipino’-ness is different from both Freya and her father, in a way I feel but can’t quite define, and I imagine other readers, whether or not they’re Filipino, will respond in different ways as well to these aspects of the story. It’s all subtly done, but wonderfully complex.

The rest of the story is just as rich, and I’m sure that, depending on readers’ own interests and life experiences, likely other readers will find other aspects of the plot that’ll resonate with them. There’s the complicated relationship between Freya’s aunt and cousin, the somewhat complex relationships amongst the vekers in the support group, the debate about whether or not vekers should be more visible in society and share their stories more openly, and so on. The big climactic moment fell a bit flat to me, and I honestly felt the veker cast in the villain role for this part of the plot was treated too harshly. But I also thought the set-up was well-done, and while I wasn’t too in love with how that part of the plot was resolved, I can see why it kinda makes sense. Overall, though, I came out of this book still thinking about that restaurant scene, as well as other scenes that resonated with me, and realizing that there’s no way I’ll be able to contain all the thoughts I had about this book into a single review.

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Thank you to Invisible Publishing for an e-galley of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Home of the Floating Lily, by Silmy Abdullah

HomeOfFloatingLilyI’m not much of a short story reader, so I wasn’t sure how much I would enjoy Home of the Floating Lily. It turns out that the short story format was perfect for reading during my lunch break, and this collection was lovely company as I returned to working in the office. Silmy Abdullah’s stories feature ordinary people — Bangladeshi immigrants who navigate love, life, and relationships as they build a new home in Canada.

Perhaps among my favourite stories is one about a woman who moved to Canada with her husband to build a better life for her sons, only to have both sons grow up to defy her dreams and expectations for their lives. While she dreamed of them becoming wealthy and successful doctors, one rebels against his conservative upbringing, and the so-called ‘good son’ desires a more spiritual path to success. Abdullah does a good job of exploring the mother’s complex emotions — more stress and anxiety than outright disappointment, and all mixed up in her own feelings of alienation in Canada. I love how the mother’s longing to return to Bangladesh isn’t because of any particular incident or experience in Canada; Bangladesh is simply her home in a way that Canada never quite felt like.

I also really liked the story of a young wife in an apartment complex with other Bangladeshi immigrants, who learns something surprising about her husband’s past that has implications for their present. Again, Abdullah explores the young wife’s alienation and loneliness in wonderfully subtle strokes, managing to covey expansive stories even with something as mundane as doing laundry in a shared space. I related hard to the young wife’s desire to connect with one of her older neighbours, and I felt even more for her when she had to process what she’s learned about her husband.

Another favourite is the story of the young student who comes home to Bangladesh and finds herself viewing the domestic helper working for her family in a new light. The student’s attempts to ’empower’ the domestic helper is well-intentioned, but highly privileged. The  resulting fallout for both herself and the domestic helper turns a harsh spotlight onto the narrow-mindedness of imposing a Western lens onto one’s country of origin. As well-intentioned as the student is, the story ends with her never really seeing the domestic helper for who she is, and for what she needs; rather, the student sees her only as a cause to champion, and in so doing, becomes complicit in the very treatment she protests.

The titular story didn’t quite grab my attention as much, though it’s possibly just because it’s a bit longer than the others. But overall, the stories are wonderfully written, and the characters are drawn with sensitive realism. It’s a beautiful read.

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Thank you to Dundurn Press for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Replacement Wife, by Darby Kane

ReplacementWifeCoverThe Replacement Wife had such a great hook: Elisa’s brother-in-law Josh has a dead wife and a missing fiancee, so when he brings home a new girlfriend, Rachel, Elisa is understandably concerned about Rachel’s safety. Making matters worse, Josh says and does things that seem to cast doubts on Elisa’s sanity, and even Elisa’s husband Harris seems inclined to believe his brother over her. Set-up-wise, there are so many things about this thriller that hooked me right in.

Unfortunately, the execution fell flat for me. I like that the author set up multiple examples of how Josh gaslights Elisa, and I like that the author sets Elisa herself up as an unreliable narrator, so that even we, as readers, are sometimes unsure whether or not we should believe Elisa’s version of reality. However, after a while, the story started to feel repetitive. The series of incidents were intended to escalate the tension, but mostly, they made the book feel long, and at times, even boring. Part of it may be that I never really believed that Elisa had lost her grip on reality, versus other novels with unreliable narrators, for example, Girl on the Train, which really kept me off-balance throughout. So I felt there was little doubt from the start that Josh was a bad guy, and while I shared Elisa’s frustration that Harris couldn’t see it, I felt more impatient than anything.

I did like the bit of uncertainty the author set up about another character, and whether they were friend or foe to Elisa, but again, I was disappointed by the way this plot line played out. The reveal felt convoluted, and the resulting fallout felt rushed. It got to a point when even I wasn’t sure whether or not Elisa believed the reveal, and while I’m all for twisty and suspenseful climaxes, in this case, confusion just removed me from the story. Elisa’s behaviour during the big climactic confrontation made no sense to me, given the build-up, and while the eventual resolution did tie up loose ends, I just ended up frustrated at Elisa herself. The ending felt like a cheat, and not in a good, twist-filled way that leaves me breathless. Rather, it all just felt messy, and worse, the build-up to it wasn’t even gripping enough to make the ending all that disappointing.

It wasn’t a horrible book. It felt a bit slow, but I was interested in finding out what happens to the characters, and whether the friend-or-foe character actually was friend or foe to Elisa. Up until the climax, I would’ve considered this novel a solid, if somewhat underwhelming, 3 star thriller. But the ending just took me right out of the story, and I wish it had been handled better.

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Thank you to Harper Collins Canada for an e-galley in exchange for an honest review.