Review | A God in Ruins, Kate Atkinson

GodinRuinsI had mixed feelings about Atkinson’s earlier novel Life After Life. I thought that concept behind the book — the ability to live one’s life over and over again until you get it right — was more compelling than the book itself. So when I received an advance reading copy of the companion novel A God in Ruins, I wasn’t quite that hyped up about it, and while I was going to give it a shot, I was at most cautiously optimistic.

A God in Ruins is about Teddy, the younger brother of Ursula, who in turn was the protagonist in Life After Life. Unlike Ursula, Teddy gets only one life to live, and we follow his journey from being a mischievous little boy to fighting in World War II as an RAF pilot, and finally to adjusting to life after the war.

I thought A God in Ruins was a much stronger book, though I also think that having it parallel Life After Life to some degree added to its strength. The poignancy of having only one life to live, set against the backdrop of World War II, is particularly heightened by our knowledge that having the chance to live one’s life over and over again isn’t quite tragedy-free either. The scenes about the war may be the most dramatic, but it’s Teddy’s life after the war that holds most resonance — his struggle to cope with going back to ordinary life and his strained relationship with his daughter.

There were some points where I felt bored reading the book, but other moments where scenes hold major emotional impact. I love the Adventures of Augustus stories about a little boy modelled after Teddy. The innocence and mischief in these tales are particularly resonant when contrasted with the hardness he needed to acquire for the war.

Despite the shifts back and forth in time, the story is fairly linear, with the exception of the final couple of chapters in the end. These chapters hearken to the mysticism of Life After Life, but in this case, I found they packed an emotional wallop for the reader. With these final few pages, Atkinson casts the rest of the novel in a new light, and heightens so much more the reality of war, of wasted potential, lives cut too short, and other lives that can feel too long.

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

Review | Tides of Honour, Genevieve Graham

TidesofHonourIf you love historical dramas and romances set in the time of war, you may love Genevieve Graham’s Tides of Honour. It begins in 1917 Nova Scotia, where Private Daniel Baker returns home having lost a leg in the First World War. Through flashbacks, we see how he met artist Audrey Poulin while stationed in France and how both fell in love. Though Daniel gallantly offers to let her go and find someone without such a debilitating injury, Audrey nevertheless professes her continuing love for him, and moves to Halifax to be his wife.

The novel starts off a bit slow. There are poignant moments, particularly where Daniel encounters the parents of soldiers who’ve died in the war, and the pain they feel upon seeing each other — Daniel, with the guilt of surviving, and the parents with the reminder of the son they’d lost. But otherwise, I found the beginning, with its buildup of the romance between Daniel and Audrey, to be plodding.

After marriage is when the conflict really starts, particularly when Audrey’s artistic career shows promise of taking off and Daniel is stuck underemployed and barely managing with his injury. Graham keeps the story very much a product of its time and place, and while I understand the faithfulness to historical accuracy, a lot was grating for a contemporary reader to witness. In particular, Daniel’s whole alpha male pride thing really ticked me off. He’s the man of the house, he should be the breadwinner, he should be the one to support the family, etc. Historically accurate, perhaps, but I didn’t blame Audrey for feeling stifled.

Audrey is the best part of this novel. I love how her talent helped her gain some degree of financial independence, and I love her interest in the suffragette movement. I only wish her involvement with the suffragettes was explored a bit more, and I would have loved an entire novel from her perspective.

Both their worlds get turned upside down with the Halifax Explosion of 1917. I wasn’t familiar with that bit of Canadian history, but Graham does a great job of showing the tragic effects on individual lives. I love how it affected Daniel, in particular, and helped him go beyond himself and his initial ideas of how his life should have turned out. It’s a poignant reminder that people’s stories continue even after something as shattering as surviving a war.

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

Review | The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu

GraceofKingsSometimes, you just want to completely immerse yourself in a good book. Such is the case with Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings. A doorstop at over 600 pages, the book was so good that I still wanted to read more after I finished. The story is so captivating that I lugged the book around on the subway to work every day, and devoured the entire tale in only about two weeks.

Liu is a master at world building. He has created a nation united under a single emperor, yet still feeling the tensions beneath its origins as seven separate kingdoms and the bloodiness of the emperor’s path to power. Enter our two heroes: wily bandit Kuni Garu and fierce warrior Mata Zyndu. Mata also happens to be the latest generation of a long family line whose power was deposed by the current regime. Kuni is on the path to power, yet his power lies in his background as a bandit, and his being, at heart, a commoner. Enter as well the gods, several of whom have a stake in the future of this nation, and like the gods in any ancient legend, have no qualms about interfering in human affairs.

Kuni and Mata become fast friends as they wage war against the cruel despot. They are united by a common goal, yet as time passes and circumstances change, both are revealed to have vastly different philosophies about the meaning of justice and how the world should be run.

I absolutely fell in love with this story, and I’m thrilled to see so much influence from Chinese folklore and mythology. So often, when I read these great epic novels — Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones — the influence is very clearly Western, and the characters usually come off as such. This is the first contemporary novel from a traditional publisher, that I’ve read (or at least can remember) with such scope and depth and such an epic, mythological, legendary feel, that struck me as being influenced by Eastern folklore. As an Asian Canadian, this is definitely important to me. (Another title of note, with a clear influence from Eastern mythology, is Amy McCulloch’s The Oathbreaker’s Shadow, a fantasy adventure YA duology.)

The Grace of Kings is the first book in the Dandelion Dynasty series. It is an entertaining story of intrigue, battles and political plotting. Beyond that, it also raises some interesting philosophical questions about what justice really means and how best to rule such a fragile nation. Above all, it’s a book to lose yourself in, so definitely set aside some time to treat yourself to this tale.

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

Review | Emma, Alexander McCall Smith

20604787Alexander McCall Smith’s Emma is a funny and intelligent modern re-telling of the Jane Austen classic. McCall Smith is a master at language, and his take on the story features many wry observations and witty one liners that recall Austen’s style.

I particularly liked the updating of Mr. Woodhouse, now a rather neurotic scientist and overprotective father. Miss Taylor as well, as Emma’s governess, is a snappy and smart foil to Mr. Woodhouse, a caring guardian to Emma yet also a very practical modern woman.

My primary reservation with McCall Smith’s version is that it feels dated. With the exception of Mr. Woodhouse, it almost feels like a Regency period piece, with only a few markers here and there to remind us otherwise. The characters’ concerns about class, social status and marrying well are at odds with the contemporary setting. Emma does have a career, but it feels tacked on rather than integral to the story. The character has always been spoiled, even in the original Austen, but Austen’s version had a charm to her that appears lacking in McCall Smith’s. In this contemporary re-telling, we know Emma has the best intentions because Miss Taylor tells us so. But this Emma seems more true than the original to hold to Austen’s prediction that Emma will be a “heroine whom no one but myself will much like.”

Perhaps the characters in this particular Austen just don’t translate well to the contemporary era — George Knightley in particular seemed more pompous and self-righteous than I remembered. That being said, Amy Heckerling did a fantastic job adapting Emma into the movie CluelessGranted, Clueless is a much looser interpretation of the original Austen, but it keeps the heart of the characters — Alicia Silverstone’s Cher is exactly how I’d imagine a contemporary (well, 1990s) Emma to act. Clueless is dated, even today, but it still feels fresher and more natural than McCall Smith’s Emma. 

I actually enjoyed reading McCall Smith’s Emma. It was a fun, lighthearted read, and while Emma and Knightley irked me at times, McCall Smith’s deftness with language kept me entertained throughout. I also understand that McCall Smith’s project with this book was in no way similar to that of Clueless, and it would be unfair to compare both. This is a funny, well-written book, that felt just a tad too constrained by its purpose. I enjoyed reading this book, but I also kept wishing that I were watching Clueless instead.

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

Review | The Boston Girl, Anita Diamant

22450859How did you get to be the woman you are today? Eighty-five year old Addie Baum is asked this question by her granddaughter, and thus begins a reflection on a young woman’s life in 20th century America. In Anita Diamant’s The Boston Girl, we learn about Addie’s involvement with a women’s reading society, her battles with sexism in the field of journalism, and her budding romance with her eventual husband.

Diamant has created a cast of memorable characters, and I loved reading about Addie’s family (overbearing mother, saintly yet unhappy sister, all mostly just trying to make the best of life in a new country) and friends (the street smart, artistic best friend, the women fighting for female liberation, a range of women trying to carve a better place for women in general).

The Boston Girl is a lovely, breezy read. The story covers major historical events like World War I and the rise of first wave feminism, yet presents them with an intimate, personal air. We feel much like Addie’s granddaughter, listening in rapt fascination to a woman whose story will likely never be in the history books and yet is part of history all the same.

The rise of feminism is my favourite part of the novel, which may explain my disappointment that Addie’s narration ends more or less with her marriage. On one hand, I like that Addie’s story is probably a more common one for women at the time, and that we have a tale many grandmothers can relate to, rather than a girl power type manifesto. I also know, logically, that of course she’ll meet a man, who will then become the grandfather of the young woman to whom the story is told. Also logically, there’s nothing that says she didn’t continue with her journalistic crusades after marriage. Still, on the other hand, part of me wishes the happy ending had involved making a landmark change in the fight for women’s liberation, rather than settling down into being a wife and mother.

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Thank you to Simon and Schuster for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Book Event and Giveaway | Philippa Gregory in Toronto

Ecard_KingsCurse

Fan of great historical fiction and the Tudor era? Check out this awesome event from Simon and Schuster Canada coming to Toronto on September 22! Philippa Gregory, author of a number of historical fiction bestsellers (including my personal favourite, the classic The Other Boleyn Girl) will be doing a lecture and book signing at the Al Green Theatre, Toronto, to promote her new novel The King’s Curse.

About The King’s Curse:

From the #1 New York Times bestselling author behind the Starz original series The White Queen comes the story of lady-in-waiting Margaret Pole and her unique view of King Henry VIII’s stratospheric rise to power in Tudor England.

Regarded as yet another threat to the volatile King Henry VII’s claim to the throne, Margaret Pole, cousin to Elizabeth of York (known as the White Princess) and daughter of George, Duke of Clarence, is married off to a steady and kind Lancaster supporter—Sir Richard Pole. For his loyalty, Sir Richard is entrusted with the governorship of Wales, but Margaret’s contented daily life is changed forever with the arrival of Arthur, the young Prince of Wales, and his beautiful bride, Katherine of Aragon. Margaret soon becomes a trusted advisor and friend to the honeymooning couple, hiding her own royal connections in service to the Tudors.

After the sudden death of Prince Arthur, Katherine leaves for London a widow, and fulfills her deathbed promise to her husband by marrying his brother, Henry VIII. Margaret’s world is turned upside down by the surprising summons to court, where she becomes the chief lady-in-waiting to Queen Katherine. But this charmed life of the wealthiest and “holiest” woman in England lasts only until the rise of Anne Boleyn, and the dramatic deterioration of the Tudor court. Margaret has to choose whether her allegiance is to the increasingly tyrannical king, or to her beloved queen; to the religion she loves or the theology which serves the new masters. Caught between the old world and the new, Margaret Pole has to find her own way as she carries the knowledge of an old curse on all the Tudors.

Check out a chapter excerpt from The King’s Curse at http://issuu.com/touchstonebooks/docs/the_king_s_curse.

Win a copy of The King’s Curse:

Thanks to Simon and Schuster Canada, I’m giving away a copy of The King’s Curse to one of my readers! This contest is open to Canada only.

Click here to enter the Rafflecopter giveaway.

Meet Philippa Gregory:

Meet the author in person at the Al Green Theatre, Toronto! Information and tickets here.

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Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for a copy of the book for the giveaway.

Review | Hush Now, Don’t Explain, Dennis Must

21528969This must be my season for jazz novels. Almost immediately after reading 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas, I receive Dennis Must’s Hush Now, Don’t Explain for review. Unlike Cat’s Pajamas, Must’s novel takes a starkly realistic view of history — racism, sexism and class relations, all within the framework of jazz.

The story follows Honor, an orphan, at the end of Word War II, as she leaves her dead-end town of DeForest Junction on a quest to learn about her birth mother. With her is her friend Billy, a mixed-race boy looking for the man he believes is his birth father, and shanty store owner Augustus Willard.

There are some powerful moments in this book, such as when Billy gets attacked and branded on his chest for his skin colour and when one of the characters decides to turn back for love. I also like the cadence of Must’s writing, which draws the reader into how the characters speak.

Overall, however, there’s a lot going on in Hush Now and I don’t think it all necessarily came together. There’s a heavy-handedness to the story, a desire to explore so many different issues and make a strong statement about each one, that at times, it just felt crammed. At its heart are some very personal, individual conflicts — Honor and Billy’s search for their past, Augustus’ search for a certain kind of future — yet only Augustus’ story, and to a lesser extent Billy’s, has a satisfying payoff. Honor is the main character, but her story felt the least authentic. I like how she had to dress up as a man to stay safe, but given how easily some other characters saw through her facade, it seemed more a metaphorical gesture than anything else. Possibly because her story felt the most heavy handed, she never felt real, and when she experiences something horrific later on in the story, it lacked emotional impact.

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