Review | Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d (Flavia de Luce 8), Alan Bradley

28814726Flavia de Luce is back, and Bradley has finally recovered some of the magic that made me fall in love with the series in the first place! I’ve never been a fan of Bradley’s decision to take Flavia to Toronto and involve her with the spy organization Nide, so I’m thrilled to see her back in England discovering a body in her hometown.

Flavia goes to a reclusive woodcutter’s house to deliver a message from the vicar’s wife, only to find him dead, tied spread eagled and upside down to his door. The clues: a lottery ticket and a collection of Crispian Crumpet children’s books. The witness: a tortoiseshell cat. Flavia’s investigation takes her around the village and into London as she digs into the decades-old death of an author and meets a colourful cast of characters, including a neighbourhood witch, a teenage aspiring singer, and the real-life Crispian Crumpet. The mystery is full of twists and turns, and while I figured out one of the big mid-book reveals pretty much off the bat, I certainly never saw the ultimate big reveal coming, nor the bad guy’s motivation.

 

Brinded Cat gives us a more mature Flavia, still geeking out about chemistry and blood patterns, but slightly more subdued in her reproach. Rather than playing mischievous scientific pranks on her sisters and angling for her father’s undivided attention, this Flavia worries about her father’s health (he’s in the hospital and she’s unable to visit) and wonders about the seemingly irreparable rift between her and her sisters. Flavia’s relationship with Dogger and Undine really come to the fore in this book, with Flavia struggling to come to terms with the changes in her family while she was away and also with the fact that she’s no longer the youngest child in the household. In one scene, she scolds Undine for some mischief, only to learn that Dogger had helped her do it. Flavia felt betrayed by Dogger, not because he did anything wrong, but rather because Undine appears to have taken on Flavia’s role in Dogger’s life. It’s a really well-written moment, as is the part where Flavia looks at Undine with affection tinged with annoyance, a sort of maturation into the older sister mode.

The end of the book is just heartbreaking. Seriously, Alan Bradley, what was that for? I personally wish it had been moved earlier in the story, or at least that we had a bit more time to process it, rather than ending the book so abruptly, cliffhanger style.

Still, overall, a wonderful, captivating book, and I’m so glad to see Flavia back to form.

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

Review | In the Unlikely Event, Judy Blume

There are writers whose books you love, and then there are writes whose books have actually helped define your childhood. Judy Blume is such a writer. I remember reading Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret when I was a child, and feeling that the author just got me. Somehow, Judy Blume placed her finger right on the pulse of pre-teen female anxieties, and while Margaret’s experiences may have differed from my own, in a way, I was Margaret. (“I must, I must, I must increase my bust.” Dear god, did we ever believe such an exercise would work?)

23899174I also enjoyed Blume’s adult novel Summer Sistersbut it’s where her characters are young adults, just beginning to figure out who they are, that I think Blume’s writing really shines. I feel the same way about her most recent adult novel In the Unlikely Event, which was inspired by a true incident in her childhood, when a succession of planes crashed near her New Jersey hometown and caused a ruckus in the community. Commercial air travel was still relatively new then, and much like the 1990s movie The Net warned of the potential dangers of the Internet, the real-life incident in the 1950s must have caused much anxiety over the safety of airline travel and the possibility that the crashes may not have been accidental.

In the Unlikely Event focuses on the story of Miri Anderson, who was fifteen when the airplane crashes occurred, and who was flying back home thirty-five years later to commemorate the anniversary of the incident. We learn about various stages in Miri’s life, all the way until adulthood, as well as receive glimpses of the lives of the passengers in the planes that crashed. Blume also incorporates newspaper articles, written in the somewhat novelistic, emotionally fraught style of the day, which help provide a wider picture of what’s going on. (Fun fact: In Blume’s Toronto talk about this book, she said that because she was so busy and the deadline for the manuscript was coming up so quickly, her husband stepped in to write the newspaper articles for her.)

As with Summer Sisters, I felt it was really the scenes of Miri’s childhood that shone. Her wonder at silk stockings, her desire to be a journalist, and later, her increasingly outlandish conspiracy theories about the real reason behind the crashes all took me back to childhood. Whereas an adult would likely think of practical solutions to planes crashing, or otherwise engage in knowing rhetoric about the perceived, widely accepted, “true” cause for the accidents, children are freer with their imaginations, and freer as well to admit that no one is telling them anything and that the situation is all the scarier for it. While the plane crashes formed the impetus for the plot, I especially loved the idyllic scenes of Miri and her mother in the small town. I love the saving up of pennies for silk lingerie, which is impractical but oh so pretty. I love reading about the gossip amongst the townspeople, and the way everyone pretends to know everyone else’s business. I don’t necessarily know that I would want to live like that, but I certainly love reading about it, and Blume’s narrative voice just lends itself so perfectly to nostalgia.

The intermittent vignettes about the airplane passengers were interesting as well. On a whole, I thought they distracted from the main story. But on quite a few instances, I actually found myself more compelled to read on about the vignette rather than return o the main story. I’d get all caught up in some passenger’s life, feel disappointed that they died in the crash and that I’d never get to hear more about how their lives could have turned out. And then I’d realize just how utterly, horribly tragic accidents could be. How much of a life, of a potentially beautiful and exciting rest of one’s life, can be cut off in an instant, and how utterly, horribly unfair it is to not even know the reason this death occurred. With these vignettes, Blume brought home the tragedy of these accidents, and suddenly, Miri’s theories make much more sense, not so much because they become more logical, but because in a small way, we too have developed a need to make sense of what has happened.

Judy Blume in Toronto, June 2015

In case you’ve never heard Judy Blume speak, she is simply marvellous. The Toronto Public Library hosted an event with her last summer. It was a sold-out event, with so much overflow that I believe the overflow room was just as crowded as the main one, and even though I had a ticket, I ended up perching on a bar stool somewhat behind a column at the very back of the room. It was so worth it though and made my inner thirteen year old squee.

Here is the Library’s video of the event:

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

Event Recap | Digital Detox at Penguin Random House Canada

DigitalDetoxInvite

What better way to kick off the New Year than by taking a break from our digital devices and opting to curl up with a good book instead? I unfortunately didn’t take part in Penguin Random House Canada’s #DigitalDetox challenge in January (tip: if you want to detox with books, don’t read on your iPad), but I thought this event would be a great way to relax, treat myself to some time away from the screen, and pick up some yummy, healthy recipes to boot!

The event featured samples from Cook. Nourish. Glow., including a delicious cocktail: cardamom, rose and pink grapefruit gin fizz. Some of the food, including the olive and rosemary chickpea flatbread and millet-sesame croquettes with tamari dipping sauce, were a bit dry for my taste, but I really enjoyed the salmon balls with crunchy white sauce. Amelia was there as well, and she spoke to us about her book and about cooking healthy, delicious meals.

MiniSpa

The event also featured various tables with products and activities that promote health and relaxation, and the stop that immediately caught my eye was the Butter Me Body mini-spa station. Staff were on-hand to demonstrate some sugar scrubs and hand lotions, that were made from all-natural, Canadian-sourced ingredients. I selected the mango-scented products, which smelled delicious, and I loved how soft they made my skin feel without leaving any greasy residue.

MarieKondo

I also really liked the drawer organizing station inspired by Marie Kondo’s book Spark Joy. A floorplaysocks sign quipped that “Happiness is a tidy sock drawer.” My drawers are currently overflowing with hastily crumpled items, so I still have to try out these techniques and let you know if they do indeed cause happiness.

LifeChangingMagic

As an aside, the swag bag we received included a copy of Life-Changing Magic, a journal inspired by Kondo’s book, and it’s my current favourite thing. The journal provides space to record whatever has sparked joy in your life in a particular day, and it has three sections per day, so one journal can last you up to three years. I love the act of taking note of the little joys each day, and I love knowing that, on days when things aren’t quite going my way, I can just look back on these entries and remind myself of all I can be grateful for in my life.

ColouringBooks

The colouring station is another highlight from the event. I now want a copy of that Cats in Paris one, as well as this Paris Street Style colouring book I unfortunately didn’t get in the shot. Other highlights for book lovers and TV buffs include colouring books for Game of Thrones and Outlander

Yoga

I also happened upon a group learning gentle stretching techniques based on the “Essentrics” workouts Miranda Esmonde-White developed and wrote about in her book Aging Backwards.

TinyBeautifulThings

Finally, there was a whiteboard where we could post questions for an upcoming Twitter chat with Cheryl Strayed, the author of Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things. If you’re a fan, join in on February 5 at 7 pm EST!

SwagBag

It was great checking out the stations and meeting up with fellow book bloggers. The swag bag handed out at the end of the event was full of treats, including a sample of the Butter Me Body scrub, the journal I mentioned earlier, a signed copy of Cook. Nourish. Glow. and, another personal favourite, a coupon for a free cup of tea at David’s Tea. I also really love the quote on the Cheryl Strayed Post-It pad: “Be brave enough to break your own heart.” And I can’t wait to try out some of Amelia Freer’s other recipes.

Thank you, Penguin Random House Canada, for a wonderful detox event!

Review | City of the Lost, Kelley Armstrong

26869354Where would you go if you suddenly had to disappear? In Kelley Armstrong’s City of the Lostthere’s an isolated small town in the Yukon that provides such a sanctuary, hidden away by the forest and essentially self-sustaining. Casey Duncan, a detective who has killed a man, is less interested in escape than in ensuring that her best friend Diana is safe from her abusive husband. The town’s sheriff Eric Dalton needs a detective, so the town council agrees to take Diana on if Casey comes along.

A departure from Armstrong’s usual paranormal thriller, City of the Lost is a fairly straightforward murder mystery, a locked room puzzle in a town where everyone has a troubled past. There are shades of political intrigue, the possibility that the town council accepts bribes to allow dangerous criminals into town, and the threat of “hostiles” living in the surrounding forest. There is also a drug angle, with the mild-mannered town pharmacist allegedly suppling residents with a more potent version of a popular drug. And there is a series of murders with rather disgusting markers such as internal organs hanging from a tree. It feels very much like a big city police procedural, except with small town friendships and the added danger of the wild.

Armstrong can always be counted on for a good story, and City of the Lost is a solid example of that. It had a lot of good points — the romance was hot and I absolutely love that Casey is half Filipino-Chinese. This may sound like a backhanded compliment, or worse, condescending that I’m making a big deal of it, and I really don’t mean it to be. It’s just that I never really expect to see characters like me in popular fiction, so it’s always a thrill when I do. And it’s an even bigger thrill when the character is awesome like Casey is, and when her being Filipino-Chinese isn’t at all integral to the story, when it’s simply a throwaway piece of description, because it shows how effortless it can and should be to incorporate diverse characters into literature. Armstrong has always been great at having diverse characters, and I love that about her work.

I’m a huge Kelley Armstrong fan, and perhaps that’s why this novel fell somewhat short of my expectations. The mystery was good, but the search for the killer wasn’t quite as gripping as I’d hoped. I knew there was danger in the town, and the danger had turned somewhat personal with a character I liked getting killed, but the mystery somehow lacked urgency. I wasn’t flipping the page as fast as I could to get to the bottom of it. Contrast that to her earlier work The Masked Truth where I stayed up late to finish it, or the Cainsville series, where I was so intrigued by the mythology she’d created that I wanted to keep reading more.

The characters as well were likeable, but not so memorable that I absolutely need to read more of their stories. Armstrong creates good characters and her Women of the Otherworld series in particular is an example where her characters veritably crackle off the page. I didn’t quite get that crackle in City of the Lost, and in fact, when Casey was going on a rock climbing trip with a new close friend Petra, I had to flip back to remind myself who Petra was. Their first meeting confused me as well — Petra was part of a group that Diana had gone with to a bar, and while Casey initially seemed put off by the group, agreeing with Eric that they were the popular party kids Diana should probably avoid, she then becomes very good friends with them herself. It’s possibly a case of first impressions being a mistake, but the change in Casey’s perception seemed to have happened within the same page, which confused me.

All this to say that City of the Lost is a good book, just not as amazing as I look for in a Kelley Armstrong story. Perhaps I just prefer her paranormal fiction, or perhaps, as this is the first book in a series, Armstrong is still feeling out her characters and setting. Still, it’s a solid mystery thriller, and it’ll be interesting to see how the concept of this town will play out in future instalments.

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

Review | The Gap of Time, Jeanette Winterson

GapofTimeThe Gap of Time is such a beautiful book. Winterson is a master of language, and she plays with Shakespeare’s tale in such clever ways that it feels both homage and update, Shakespeare’s original not so much retold as teased out and turned inside out. There’s a playfulness to Winterson’s tone, a lilt to her cadence that hints that she doesn’t take all of this too seriously, yet there is also such lyricism in the language that she manages to evoke depths of emotion all the same. It’s a linguistic feat worthy of Shakespeare himself, and thus such a fitting “cover” of his work.

Take for example the beginning, where a man named Shep finds a baby “light as a star” abandoned near a hospital, and decides to adopt her as his own:

I played the song and I taught it to her. She was singing before she could talk.

I am learning to be a father and a mother to her. She asks about her mother and I say we don’t know. I have always told her the truth — or enough of it. And she is white and we are black so she knows she was found.

The story has to start somewhere. (page 23)

The words are simple and straightforward, yet the rhythm almost feels musical. Contrast that with the harsh momentum in the story of Leo, a man whose irrational jealousy ends up destroying his family:

Leo swivelled round to the window. He hated his friend for fucking his wife. Weren’t there enough women out there? Everywhere he went, bars, clubs, hotels, boats, there were identical-looking women searching for men. Long hair, long legs, big sunglasses, moulded tits, vast handbag, killer heels. You could rent them for the weekend except that it wasn’t called renting, but both parties knew who paid and who put out. (page 39)

You could just feel his anger bubble up and about to burst through. Winterson’s story isn’t meant for stage, but there’s a stage-like quality to her writing, a sense that you’re watching the action unfold rather than just reading about it.

Gap of Time is a cover version of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. You don’t need to know the original to appreciate this story; the novel begins with a handy recap of the play. One of Shakespeare’s later plays, it was never one of my favourites, mostly because I felt Leontes (Leo in Winterson’s version) got off too easily with his own happy ending despite all the havoc he wreaked on other people’s lives. Winterson’s version makes me appreciate the story more, and while I still can’t bring myself to feel sorry for Leo, I appreciated how Winterson’s book makes clear how much Leo’s darkness is within him and how much his suffering ends up self-inflicted.

I also love the other updates Winterson made to the story. She weaves in issues of race (a white girl adopted by a black man and his son) and sexuality (the tension between Leo and his best friend Xeno is partially due to them having once been lovers and there are hints that Leo’s homophobic comments to Xeno are actually rooted in fear of his own sexuality). She also ramps up the metaphor, but does this so beautifully that it feels natural rather than heavy-handed. Xeno invents a video game inspired by a story of an angel who is trapped in a courtyard, and as time passes in the game, Time itself eventually becomes a character in its own right. I’m not quite sure what it means, and there’s a moment where Winterson blurs the lines so I’m not sure if the characters are playing the video game or moving about in the real world. I didn’t like that ambiguity, but I think the metaphor of the game is beautiful overall.

Towards the end, Winterson breaks the fourth wall and deliberately steps back to let the story play out without her. Up until that point, she has moved the characters around, between London and New Bohemia, between the past and the present, and just before she breaks that fourth wall, she situates the characters just so. It’s masterfully done, a playwright/director creating a tableau just as they signal the curtain to fall. There’s an artifice to Winterson’s presentation, certainly, but it’s deliberate and, to my mind, done really well. We know, somewhat, how the story will end, because we know how Shakespeare’s original ended, and despite Winterson’s weaving in of new themes like race and sexuality, she consistently stayed true to the flow of the original. And yet we are still swept away. The emotions are still real, the characters still fleshed out, and the wordplay simply magnificent.

I loved this book, and I’d love to read more of Winterson’s works, to see how her magic with words can bring her own stories to life.

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

 

Review | If I Fall, If I Die, Michael Christie

IfIFall“The boy stepped Outside and he did not die.” One of the most promising beginnings to a novel that I’ve encountered in a long time. If I Fall, If I Die tells the story of 12 year old Will, whose agoraphobic mother has kept him indoors all his life. When the novel begins, a noise outside his home leads Will to take his first taste of freedom.

The novel has such a powerful beginning. We experience with Will his fears at his first steps outside, his uncertainty at dealing with other people, and finally his exhilaration at discovering how limitless the world really is. Coupled with that is his guilt over, in a way, leaving his mother behind. I love the interplay between Will’s emotions, and his warring desires to introduce his mother to the wonders of Outside while at the same time to make her feel safe and comfortable, which she can only really feel within the walls of their home.

I also really loved the glimpse into the mindset of Will’s mother Diane. Christie details how a single day at the subway transformed her into a woman too afraid to leave her front door. At one point, he writes, “How easy it is for a life to become tiny. How cleanly the world falls away.” (page 16) That entire chapter is such a potent, moving depiction of how easy it is to slip into agoraphobia, & how terrifying/paralyzing the condition can be.

The story falters a bit when it leaves behind Diane’s story somewhat and focuses on Will’s life Outside. He happens to become involved somehow with some unsavoury characters, and ends up trying to solve a fairly complex mystery dealing with some dangerous criminals. Even as this part of the plot began, I could see how it could develop into a potential motivation for Diane to face her fear, but from such a powerfully intimate beginning, these developments just felt contrived. From such depth of emotion in the characters’ internal worlds, the shift to a primarily external plot was jarring, moreover, disappointing. It was all just a little too convenient, and I wondered how Will and Diane would have dealt with the shift in their dynamics if Will’s life had stayed just a tad more ordinary — how much much poignant the catharsis would have felt.

That being said, there’s just a gorgeous line near the end of the book that brought back, somewhat, what I loved so much about the beginning:

But the shadow that love can’t help but cast is fear: fear they won’t stay alive or around — fear they’ll be reckless, or doomed, or just walk away and not consider you ever again. With love, you’re scared it will disappear. With fear, you’re scared it never will. (page 323)

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

Review | In the Country: Stories, Mia Alvar

Here’s a confession: I’ve always dreamed of writing a Filipino-American novel. I have no clue what it will be about, or even what genre it would be in, but I knew I wanted the protagonist to be Filipino, and I wanted it to resonate somewhat with readers beyond other Filipinos.

Here’s the reason: As a Filipino-Canadian bookworm and aspiring novelist, I’m dismayed by the apparent lack of books with Filipino characters or Filipino content in the mainstream literary world. With the notable exception of Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters (published over a decade ago – in 1991), there aren’t a lot of contemporary examples of fiction written by Filipinos and published or read outside the Philippines. Some of the others I know of are either about the country under Martial Law (relevant history, but still far from contemporary), or written by non-Filipinos (still notable, as in the case of Angie Abdou’s recent novel Between, but not quite the same). I should add here that it’s entirely possible I just don’t know of these examples, and I would love, dearly love, to be proven wrong about this.

IntheCountrySo when fellow blogger Lynne from Words of Mystery offered me her copy of Mia Alvar’s short story collection In the Country, I was thrilled to discover this title. Here was a recently published book (2015!) by a major publisher (Penguin Random House!) written by a Filipino American whose stories, according to the book blurb “vividly give voice to the women and men of the Filipino diaspora.”

Here’s another confession: Alvar’s stories could have been just okay, and I still would have been liked the book, because as I mentioned, I’m starved for contemporary Filipino American literature. So imagine my thrill when I read the first story and realized Alvar’s writing is so much more than just okay — it was brilliant!

Her stories indeed “vividly give voice” to her characters, transporting the reader to locales such as Dubai or New York and describing events such that you can actually feel like you’re there. Her characters range from household helpers and young professionals in the 80s and 90s to activists in 1970s Martial Law. Filipino-ness is intrinsic and integral to her characters, without necessarily determining their stories, and references to Filipino cultural nodes like sari sari stores and telenovelas are sprinkled throughout, again intrinsic and integral to the stories without quite being the driving force. I guess that by that I mean that Alvar’s writing doesn’t quite set out to push Filipinos to the forefront, but rather takes the stories that are there and simply shares them with the world.

Given how many Filipino-American stories seem fixated on Martial Law, I found myself more drawn to her tales of Filipinos working in other countries. OFWs (Overseas Filipino Workers) form a significant part of the Philippine economy and population, and Alvar’s stories do a great job of presenting the balancing act between being away from home and forming a new home wherever you are.

I particularly love this passage from her story “Shadow Family,” about a community of Filipinas in Bahrain whose lives get upended when a flirtatious young household helper joins their group:

We too had landed vowing to stick to English — to impress others, to practice, to avoid embarrassing our children. Although the teens still found plenty to ridicule in our accents, nuns in convent school had at least taught us to pronounce our f‘s and v‘s correctly, to know our verb tenses and distinguish genders, to translate naman differently depending on the context. But at these parties we spoke Tagalog even to the babies, who barely understood it, for the same reason we served pancit and not shawarma. Between Arab bosses and Indian subordinates, British traffic laws and American television, we craved familiar flavors and the sound of a language we knew well. (p. 97)

I love the simplicity of that notion, that stubborn clinging to a language because it’s the one bit of home that you can keep, no matter what. I love it mostly because I understand it, because I understand the sense of home that can come just from hearing the sharper cadence of your language.

It’s this sense of home that I felt while reading Alvar’s stories, the sense that while the experiences she recounts are not quite my own, there are touchpoints and trademarks that resonate with familiarity. I read this collection on a train out of town one weekend, and for once, I actually wanted the journey to last longer so I could keep reading.

One question I have every time I read a book that resonates with me because of something in my background (e.g. Crazy Rich Asians), I wonder if non-Asians or non-Filipinos would respond in the same way. Is the book great just because I found familiarity within it, or would other readers also find something within it that will resonate with them? And part of me always hopes so, because that would mean that something in Filipino culture, or Asian culture in general, something far beyond the stereotypes that unfortunately are all too prevalent in books and movies, touched a chord in a broader readership. So far, I’ve lent In the Country to one non-Filipino friend, who also loved it and thought the writing was really good. Call me silly, but that response actually made my day.

In case you couldn’t tell, I absolutely loved Mia Alvar’s In the Country. Here, finally, is the book I’ve long wanted to read and, to be honest, also wanted to write. I still dream of someday joining Alvar and Hagedorn and a hopefully growing list of Filipino fictionists who have carved a space of our own in the Western literary world. In the meantime, I’m beyond glad that Alvar has written this book, and I can’t wait to see what she writes next.

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A note that at the beginning of this year, I made a pledge to read more Asian American Women Writers. I will likely do a brief recap list nearer the end of the year rather than individual reviews for all of them, but it’s thanks to this pledge that Lynne from Words of Mystery passed this book on to me.

If you’re interested in reading more works by Asian American women, here’s the shelf I created on Goodreads, based off of Celeste Ng’s original article.

And if you have any recommendations to add to this list, in particular of Filipino writers, let me know! I’m always on the lookout for more.