Review | I’ll Have What She’s Having, Erin Carlson

31934006I grew up on Nora Ephron movies. You’ve Got Mail remains one of my favourite romance movies of all time — how often have I dreamed of being Kathleen Kelly, with a charming little bookstore of my own and being swept off my feet by a man who put me out of business but is really the sweetest guy with the biggest heart. (I’m not even being ironic here. Losing a tiny corner bookshop seemed a small price to pay for Tom Hanks falling madly in love with me and giving me a job at his bookstore empire.) Even at the height of instant messaging, however, I could never quite pull off messages like “I love the smell of a bouquet of pencils,” which I figured was the reason the people I spoke to online were never as charming as Tom Hanks.

Nora Ephron defined my idea of romance. Even as my classmates and I swooned over Nicholas Sparks’ stories, it was Joe Fox who remained my ideal man. And if I couldn’t have a bookstore empire, I wanted a man with a son who loved him so much he’d find his father the love of his life over the radio. I wanted this man to love his son back so much, and to be so open to the possibility of love, that he’d meet a complete stranger on top of the Empire State Building for the chance of a fairy tale ending. Even as I grew old enough to realize that romance in real-life doesn’t quite have the soft lighting nor swelling soundtrack these movies promised, these movies continued to tug at my heartstrings, and remain among my notion of romantic ideals.

I’ll Have What She’s Havingby arts and entertainment writer Erin Carlson, is about Nora Ephron’s three iconic films (When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail) and how they influenced the romantic comedy genre. Reading this book took me back to my starry-eyed teen years. I loved learning about the stories behind-the-scenes of these three films, and I loved learning more about the life of such a powerful, influential woman in the arts. Carlson writes about the sexism Ephron faced, and the pressures of being one of the few powerful women in Hollywood. She delves into the process by which these films were written and produced; I was fascinated by how the ideas of these films may have come from other writers, but it was Ephron’s comedic genius that elevated them to the classics they’ve become. Carlson also touches on Ephron’s childhood, and how her comedy was influenced by her alcoholic mother’s adage that “everything is copy.”

I particularly love that Carlson delves into how ground-breaking and revolutionary Ephron’s brand of romantic comedy is. Unlike many other movies of the time, which deferred to the preferences of the largely male industry, Ephron’s movies kept female fantasy front and centre. Her movies are defiantly aspirational and tailored for female audiences, and therefore became iconic for generations of women movie goers. For example, in When Harry Met Sally, director Rob Reiner thought he was telling Harry’s story, with Billy Crystal having a bigger role and more lines, but Ephron slyly sneaks in subtle touches that gave Sally a more nuanced character arc, and Meg Ryan picks up on these pieces and steals the show. The movie’s most iconic scene, from which the book takes its title, is all about women’s experience of sex, and the fact that most women have faked orgasms turns out to be as much a revelation to Reiner and the other men on set as it was to Harry.

Even Tom Hanks is very much a woman’s fantasy of the ideal man — caring, sensitive, a single dad who manages to keep a neat houseboat with twinkling fairy lights. Hanks advocated for more traditionally masculine dialogue, and a male production designer stubbornly insisted that a single dad would have a messy houseboat. Ephron fired the production designer and while she incorporated Hanks’ suggestions, her heroes remained highly sensitive and caring versions of the alpha male. Similarly, You’ve Got Mail maintained its Jane Austen view of romance, maintaining its belief in MFEO (made for each other) in a market that included cynical romances like There’s Something About Mary. Carlson’s book details how Ephron championed this brand of romantic comedy, and how her success defied the odds.

The book could have used better editing. The perspective within chapters switched suddenly between Ephron’s life, the behind-the-scenes of her film, and the lives of film stars Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, and the transitions were random and scattered. At various points, I was just getting into the details of how a film was being developed when the next few paragraph inexplicably talk about an unrelated story like Meg Ryan’s romance with Dennis Quaid before returning to the story about the film. The book seemed a bit unsure throughout about what it wanted to be about, whether its focus was Ephron’s life, the films or their stars. Better editing could have clarified that and pulled the story together more tightly. I read an uncorrected proof, so it’s possible (and I hope this is the case) that the published version has smoother transitions; even section breaks would have helped.

The book also presumes a great deal of knowledge on the reader’s part about the actors’ lives; for example, Carlson writes about Meg Ryan not liking something because it was too much like a character on As the World Turns without explaining Ryan’s connection to the soap opera. It also presumes a great deal of familiarity with the films; I found the chapters about You’ve Got Mail to have the smoothest flow, and I wonder if it’s because I was most familiar with this film and therefore picked up on the various references most easily.

Overall, I absolutely loved this deep dive into the romantic comedies of my childhood. The book gave me a better appreciation for Ephron’s talent and legacy, and made me long to re-watch these classics.

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

 

Review | The Address, Fiona Davis

33607640This is such a good book! I was totally sucked into the story, and I wish I had read this on a weekend, so that I could just spend an entire afternoon on the couch losing myself in its world. The Address tells the story of two women a century apart, whose lives are entwined with an apartment building in New York and the family of the architect who designed it.

Sara Smythe is an English housekeeper who lands a job as a building manager at a posh New York apartment in the 1880s. Her story is utterly compelling and ultimately tragic. Despite her caution after her mother’s experience of being in love with a married man, Sara finds herself falling in love with Theodore Camden, the architect who hired her to manage the building. We know from the half of the novel set in the 1980s that at some point, Sara is confined in a mental asylum and ends up killing Theodore Camden. Her reasons for doing so are unknown to historians, and even when we know how Sara’s life turns out at the end, the unraveling of her tale is almost hypnotic, as Davis manages to weave an entire world within her pages. The biggest reveal to her tale is not that she murdered her employer, but rather the tragic reasons why it happened. I also loved the cast of characters surrounding Sara and Theodore — Theodore’s distant wife, Sara’s cheerful and naive assistant, and even the residents of the building are all sharply drawn and complex figures.

Bailey Camden’s half of the story, set in the 1980s, pales in comparison. A recovering addict, Bailey gets a chance at a new career when her cousin Melinda hires her to renovate her apartment, which happens to be the one Theodore Camden used to live in.Melinda is Theodore’s biological great-granddaughter, and in line to inherit a tremendous fortune. Bailey’s grandfather was Theodore Camden’s ward, who was left out of the estate, and as a result, her father had disavowed any connection to the family. While renovating the apartment, Bailey comes across a photograph that hints at a stronger connection between her and the family than her father realized, and sparks a curiosity to learn more about who Sara Smythe is.

The answer to Bailey’s quest will likely come as no surprise, though there is an unexpected twist at the end that is awfully convenient yet too amusing to dislike. There’s a friendship/romance with the building’s landlord, which was nice but lacked any real spark. Melinda’s bitchiness was entertaining but ultimately too caricaturish (spoiled rich girl meets evil stepmother) to evoke a response. Still, I like how Bailey’s half of the story gave me a more expansive perspective on Sara’s life, and on how Sara’s story continued after her death.

Overall, I highly recommend this book. Take an afternoon off, make yourself a cup of tea, and allow yourself to become immersed in this world.

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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 | If the Dress Fits, Carla de Guzman

32328505If the Dress Fits is a fun, body positive romance and a delight to read. I love the realism of Martha’s complex relationship with her body. I like that she is fat, and not just ‘pleasantly plump’ or ‘curvy’, how she is happy about her weight but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t sometimes lie in bed and wish she was big like a plus-size model, whose curves always end up in the right places.

The sweet, bookish, animal-loving hero Max is just perfect. He’s a veterinarian, which made my animal loving cat mom heart go into a full-on swoon. He never goes anywhere without a book, he has a dog, and he even helped a giraffe give birth. How much do I love the sex scenes where Max worships her body kinda like Joe Manganiello does in that scene from Magic Mike XXL! (Okay, maybe it doesn’t quite happen exactly like that and my fantasies may have blurred together somewhat… 😉 ) While the sex scenes were hot, they also felt realistic. I like that Martha braces herself on her elbows and worries about collapsing her full weight on Max, and I absolutely LOVE how smoothly Max shifts their positions while still keeping their rhythm going.

I have all empathy as well for Martha’s long-ago crush on theatre guy Enzo, because who doesn’t love a theatre guy? Seriously, part of why I loved reading this book so much is that Martha has exactly the same taste in guys I do.

My main gripe is with the ending. After such a deliciously slow burn building up the relationship, the last 10% or so rushes through a series of plot points just to wrap things up. In contrast to the emotional complexity of Martha’s relationship with her body, there are a lot of emotional issues woven into her relationship with Max that were never quite given the space to resolve organically. A romantic rival for Max’s affections appears, disappears and reappears seemingly at random throughout the story, and while this did add tension in the beginning, a reappearance near the end was just confusing, as it did nothing to the plot.

A particularly frustrating scene near the end involved the discovery of an object, but its significance was barely even unpacked. As with the romantic rival, I just didn’t see the point of this plot device, and wish that the ending had been allowed to unfold with the same slow burn as the rest of the book. When a romance pulses with as much real emotion as Max and Martha’s, quick fix endings just don’t work.

There are other minor plot points as well that are brought up, but barely developed before being resolved somehow (e.g. the tensions in Regina and Enzo’s relationship, the emotional fallout of Tita Flora’s news for the whole Aguas clan).

Despite my frustrations with the ending and some of the minor plot points, I absolutely enjoyed If the Dress Fits. I’m always on the lookout for contemporary Filipino fiction, and am thrilled to have discovered this one. I love the build up of Max and Martha’s relationship, and would love to read more of their story.

Review | Fierce Kingdom, Gin Phillips

33155777Fierce Kingdom has a tense premise — gun men take over the zoo right before closing time — but most of the execution was less nail-biting thriller and more a depiction of how fiercely a mother would protect her son. It’s not that the danger didn’t exist but that the focus was more on how Joan kept Lincoln safe as they hid from the bad guys.

I love that the question of how far a mother would go to protect her son wasn’t just the usual one of how much she’s willing to sacrifice herself but also how far she’s willing to suppress her own humanity and instinct for kindness. Joan makes some tough decisions to protect Lincoln (a particularly damning one involves a baby), but we can understand why. At one point she thinks that to protect her son, she’d ‘splatter brains’, and many readers can likely think of a loved one they’d go to that extent for.

I’m also glad that Joan’s devotion to her son is tinged by a touch of resentment at having to protect him. Often, she thinks of how much easier it would be for her to escape/stay safe without a 40 lb 4 year old at her hip demanding food and toys, and I like how realistic and human this feels. She isn’t just a heroic mom who does super heroic feats, but rather also a woman who wants to survive herself.

The secondary characters Mrs Powell and Kailynn added texture to the novel. I wish we’d learned more of their back stories and spent more time with them as they’re at least as interesting if not more so as Joan and her son. More importantly though, it’s Joan and Lincoln encountering them that makes the pace pick up considerably in the latter half. As the bad guys’ plan nears its completion and things like Mrs Powell’s age and Kailynn’s nervous chatter heighten the danger for Joan and Lincoln, the book becomes more like a traditional nail-biter and difficult to put down.

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

Review | Shade, the Changing Girl, Vol. 1, Cecil Castellucci and Marley Zarcone

33233008In Shade, the Changing Girl, an alien takes over the body of a high school bully in a coma and learns how utterly despised this girl is. It’s part of DC’s Young Animal series, which gives a fresh take on classic DC characters.

The best part of this book is the artwork. Marley Zarcone’s psychedelic panels are absolutely beautiful and create the impression of a feverish dream. The story itself feels a bit thin and unnecessarily complicated, but the artwork alone is worth obtaining a copy of this book.

The story started off really confusing. An bird alien named Loma who idolizes a poet named Rac Shade puts on his colourful cloak, and it somehow allows her to possess the body of a young girl, but also will eventually cause her to go mad. Bad guys on her home planet want the coat back and so capture her best friend (who is secretly in love with her) to track her down. The story is based on a character called Shade, the Changing Man, and likely readers who are familiar with his story would appreciate the references a lot more. I was just confused, and it took me a while to figure out what was happening. For example, the cloak makes its wearers go mad, and both the bad guys and Loma’s best friend are very concerned about its impact on her sanity, but I can’t quite figure out how long it’ll take for her to be mad, or if the way she acts in Megan’s body is already symptomatic of her madness.

The heart of the story lies in the human elements. Loma inhabits the body of a girl named Megan, who was the bitchy head of a high school clique. Megan’s classmates react mostly in dismay that she seems to have recovered from her coma, and Loma-as-Megan needs to figure out how to navigate this world being so utterly despised. In that way, the story is a wonderful metaphor of high school — how does it feel to realize how unpopular you really are?

A lot of high school stories that deal with being unpopular drive a sharp divide between the popular and the unpopular girls, so it’s a bit of a karmic twist to have someone who started as a powerful figure suddenly have to come face-to-face with the consequences of her actions. If the story had been about Megan coming to terms with this reality, it would have been an absolutely emotional, heart-wrenching tale. Unfortunately, this story makes it clear that Megan’s spirit experiences no remorse for her actions nor growth from her experiences, and it’s only Loma’s alien possession that accounts for her apparent change of heart. I figure Megan’s spirit is kept evil because it’s Loma who’s the heroine of this series, but I couldn’t help thinking that Megan deserved her body back, even if it meant she’d end up dead. The story does somewhat address this moral ambiguity, with Megan basically saying it’s her right to inhabit her body for better or worse, but it’s done only in passing and I hope future volumes delve deeper into that.

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

Review | Marriage of a Thousand Lies, S.J. Sindu

32077959Marriage of a Thousand Lies is a moving, beautifully written story about family and love, and the difficult choices we must make to honour both. The narrator, Lucky, is gay, as is her husband Krishna. Theirs is a marriage of convenience, appeasing their families’ marital aspirations for their children while allowing both the freedom to continue enjoying same-sex relationships on the side.

Lucky is forced to reexamine her life when she learns that Nisha, her childhood best friend and first lover, has announced her engagement. Family expectations forced them to break up when they were younger, but now that they’re adults, Lucky feels compelled to save both Nisha and herself from loveless marriages and pursue their own happy ending. But does Nisha even want to be saved?

Marriage of a Thousand Lies is a beautifully written book that just draws you into Lucky’s life and immerses you in her world. More than the love Lucky feels for Nisha, it’s the love she feels for her family that reverberates from the page, as well as the painful tension between what Lucky wants and what her duty to her family dictates. I absolutely love the nuances in the relationships between the characters; Sindu’s writing makes Lucky feel real, and we want her to find happiness.

I also love the character of Lucky’s husband Krishnu. While Lucky scoffs at her grandmother’s desire for them to have a baby, Krishnu admits it’s something he’s been considering. Unlike Lucky, who’s longing to free herself from the constraints of tradition, Krishnu is perfectly happy with their arrangement, and values the stability afforded by the facade of their marriage as much as he does the freedom to go out partying with other men. There’s also a very real power dynamic in play here, as his residency in the US is dependent on his marriage to Lucky, and so his desire to remain married to Lucky is also in part a desire to remain in America.

The book presents no easy answers, but rather gives us family and tradition and love in all its glorious messiness. It’s a fantastic debut, and with so many contemporary LGBTQ books with diverse characters on my radar being YA, this adult novel about a lesbian of Sri Lankan descent is a much welcome addition to my shelves.

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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 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.