Review: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

Author: Gabrielle Zevin
Title: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry
Format/Source: ebook/Library
Published: April 2014
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Length: 260 pages
Genre: General fiction
Why I Read: Popular in the blogosphere, easily accessible
Read If You’re: A book lover
Quote: “Sometimes books don’t find us until the right time”.
Rating:  ★★★★½ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon
I’m starting to run out of general fiction ebooks on my TBR list that are available through the library… These are the sorts of book I like to read during a busy week, but don’t like enough to purchase. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry would usually be one of those books – however, I enjoyed this book so much I’ll be purchasing a hard copy!

 I thought Zevin wrote a strong introduction. I like how the reader is introduced to Fikry initially from a stranger’s perspective. I made some disapproving noises at his don’t like list, then I made some sad sounds at his state of mind. This introduction hits home about how easy it is for people to misunderstand one another. Fikry grew on me as he himself grew. His development felt real. My favourite character is Lambiase, especially with his devotion to Costco appetizers (I feel you, man). He’s a good man, a nice, reasonable human being (how he reacts around page 177 solidified my opinion). What I especially loved about this story was reading about different people for whom books, played a significant role in their lives, in varying capacities. Finally, I was really pleased by the diversity in this book. This story shows how easy it can be to include diverse characters without skin colour being a defining characteristic of the book.

Despite the cover (I was so used to seeing the red and cream one, that doesn’t have any people on it), I had no idea a child was going to be key character.  When I read about a ‘mysterious package’, I become concerned I was going to get another plot like Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. But I pressed on! I loved A.J. Fikry and company far more than I loved Penumbra and company. This book is really just about stories and how we love them and what they mean to us and how they shape our loves. It doesn’t try too hard, it’s not too pushy or mushy or contrived (okay, maybe it’s a little contrived. Maaaaaaybe a little mushy. But not too much for me!). What lover of books doesn’t wish they could have grown up in a bookstore? I was tickled by the description of little Maya’s mornings in the bookstore (67-8). I did ask myself, “Is it twee?” but I answered “NAW I ADORE IT”. I loved the conversation A.J. and Amelia have on their first date. It sounds like a conversation I might have (oh, someday, maybe, haha). I shouted in agreement when A.J. confessed his disappointment over Turkish Delight (79). I had the exact same experience – as I’m sure more than one reader has. I liked the book recommendations at the start of each chapter, as well. A more thoughtful reader than I would probably realize their (the recommendations) context before it becomes obvious. 

Above I said something about the story being not too push, mushy or contrived. Well, even I can’t deny that there is some melodrama and some less-than-realistic moments…but I loved it all the same. If you are even a little bit sentimental about books and reading, I think you will enjoy this book. It is amusing, it is delightful, it has heart. If you love to read, you will likely find plenty of moments in this book to connect with, even if the overarching plot is a bit much for your tastes.

This is a small, quick book but it has everything I want a book about books to have. I don’t need to say much more. By now it should be obvious whether you might like this book or not. For me, it came at just the right moment to connect with my reading soul. I’ve always loved reading but over the past years it’s become more and more important to me. This book reminded me that I’m not the only one experiencing the joys and woes of loving stories. I don’t think I would have appreciated it as much four or five years ago. The quote above is a popular one on Goodreads, but it just so happens to describe how I feel about this book.

The Bottom Line: Have you ever felt a positive emotion in reaction to a book? Then you too may love this little story.

Further Reading: 

Review: Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King

Author: Thomas King
Title: Green Grass, Running Water
Format/Source: ebook/Library
Published: March 1993
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Length: 469 pages
Genre: Humour + magical realism
Why I Read: CBC Books’ pick for March; want to read more Indigenous literature
Read If You’re: Appreciative of a different sort of humour; interested in Indigenous stories
Quote: “I am very sleepy, says Thought Woman, and then she goes back to sleep. Hee-hee, says that River. Hee-hee.” (198).
Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon

Green Grass, Running Water is the CBC Books’ Goodreads group pick for this month, and another book for my Indigenous Canadian authors list. Green Grass, Running Water first came on my radar a few years ago, during my time tutoring. Some students came to me with papers on the story. I don’t remember what the papers were about (I think they were comparative?) but somehow, I didn’t get the impression that this is a funny book. I expected a deep, serious story, full of vast symbolism. Well, it’s definitely full of symbolism, but certainly not as solemn as I expected. Humorous satire plays a huge role in this book.

“Why are you talking to animals? says the little man. This is a Christian ship. Animals don’t talk. We got rules.” (125).

I might even recommend it for someone who wants a laugh (if they’re ready to work for it). However, I wonder how much of the humour depends on understanding some of the symbolism, or the cultural/historical context. My advantage came from the Aboriginal spirituality courses I took in university. I think without that, the Coyote and four Elders threads would have been beyond my understanding (and that’s just one major example – plenty of less significant bits would have gone by me as well.)
I made many small notes whenever something in the story clicked for me. There are many things I understood only a little bit, things I recognized I didn’t understandd (the significance of the puddles…), and probably plenty more things I didn’t even know I didn’t understand (a good example of this is the names of the bit characters – Jennifer’s posts in the Goodreads discussion brought this light). So, I was very pleased with myself when something, even if it was obvious, did click! This is a book that could benefit from multiple readings. But, I think some outside research would be necessary to understand a lot of it, for those of us who aren’t history buffs. I may hit up a reader’s guide. King has said understanding every reference isn’t critical to understanding the story, but now that I know they’re there, I want to understand them!
Because there is so much going on, much of it without context, I wonder – what’s the author’s purpose in writing this sort of story? How much will his readers get out of it? What does he want them to get out of it? But then I think “Screw it! Why am I always asking this question?” Even though I don’t think authorial intent is important to consider when understanding a story, I guess I think that if I know the author’s intent, I could garner something from a book I didn’t really understand. When I don’t understand something seems to be the only time I ask the question…if I get something out of a book, it doesn’t matter what the author intended – that book succeeded for me in some way. I wrote a bit more about this early in the Goodreads discussion (I wondered how much work should an author leave to the reader in understanding the cultural and historical backgrounds of a novel). Anyway. That’s this review’s tangent for you.
This is an Aboriginal story that touches on a lot of ‘issues’ without those ‘issues’ being the main purpose of the story. It goes beyond specific tragic circumstances (for example, residential schools abuse, alcoholism, etc.) to explore a broader picture of Indigenous people trying to find their place in today’s world, a balance between tradition and modernity. I think this quote sums up what the policies and attitudes Indigenous people are left to face today:

“Who’d have guessed there would still be Indians kicking around in the twentieth century?” (121)

I’d be remiss to not mention that this book is chock-full of great characters. My favourites were Alberta, a no-nonsense character I admired, Lionel, who’s really trying, and Babo, who understands more of what’s going on than the rest of us, probably.

The Bottom Line: Even though a lot of this story probably went over my head, I enjoyed the story lines and characters.

 Further Reading: 

Reread Review: White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

Author: Helen Oyeyemi
Title: White is for Witching
Format/Source: Hardcover/my copy
Published: June 2009
Publisher: Picador
Length: 230 pages
Genre: Contemporary + magical realism
Why I Read: Ready for my annual reread
Rating:  ★★★★★ [ratings guide]
Second book for the Reread Challenge
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon

I love this book so much that I refuse to discuss it. Even if you loved it as much as I did, I don’t want to hear about it. Perhaps you loved it in a different way. I don’t want to know. I don’t want my love of this book to be spoiled in any way! I’m very fierce about it. There isn’t any other book about which I feel this way.* Then why I am writing this post? Oh, I don’t know, I’m just asking for trouble, aren’t I? ;P This year thus far I’ve been very diligent about documenting everything I’ve read and this book counts towards the 2015 Re-read Challenge I’m participating in…so maybe making a few notes about my reading experience (without somehow talking about the book itself) won’t kill me.

WHEN I First Read – I can’t quite remember, but I think it must have been shortly after the book’s publication in summer 2009 (certainly my first reading was in 2009). I remember reading it in the cafeteria at high school. Since then, I’ve read the book nearly every year (2014 flashed by too quickly for me to choose a good time to read it ;_;).

WHAT I Remember – I remember how I felt while reading it – totally enveloped in the story, as though nothing else exists, feeling differently even after I set the book down, spending more time quietly and observantly, thinking about different things than usual. I remember how the book feels in my hands, the soft touch of the pages and the perfect style of the font. I remember how I’m not sure I can ever understand the whole story, but I discover something new on each reading.

WHY I Wanted to Re-Read – To experience the sensations described above! I know I did an awful job at trying to describe ‘that feeling’ I get from this book. Perhaps it’s best to say no other book has made me feel that way. This is why I so often return to it. Also, I felt especially eager to read it because I hadn’t read it in 2014 (I should have read it in the spring, before I got caught in moving overseas!).

HOW I Felt After Re-Reading – Just as satisfied as every other time! Every now and then, I do a search for Helen Oyeyemi on Twitter to see if I’ve missed any interviews, etc. I was delighted to find another reader tweeting about how she felt the same way. She was reading the book for the first time and we talked about how we love it so much we don’t want to talk about it with anyone! I was very happy to find someone who felt the same way. She didn’t want the story to end, so I assured her it holds up on rereads.

WOULD I Re-Read Again -Yes, of course. I will continue to read this book every year, until – heaven forbid – it starts to lose its magic for me.

There. I’ve done it. I’ve spoken publicly about my most beloved book. I’m still standing. It’ll still be the same wonderful book next I read it. Phew. 😉 Is there a book you fiercely guard and love? 

*I only have a greater love for the Tolkien’s Middle-Earth writings, but it’s a different kind. That world is so vast, it allows a for a broad variety of fans. I can easily find those who feel the same way, and even if I’m chatting with those who have a different love than mine, I can set aside my personal adoration to explore all all its intricacies and build on them with other fans.

Review: Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson

Author: Eden Robinson
Title: Monkey Beach
Format/Source: ebook/Kobo
Published: April 2002
Publisher: Mariner Books
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction (magical realism?)
Why I Read: CBC Books group read for February
Read If You’re: A fan of B.C. as a setting; interested in Indigenous literature 
Rating:  ★★★½ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon

One of my goals this year is to read more books by Indigenous Canadian authors. I’m happy this book was chosen for CBC Books’ February group read because I hadn’t heard of it before. I jotted down my own thoughts, then went through the GoodReads discussion and added responses to some comments. When I’m quoting someone else, it’s from that group discussion. Here’s the link if you want to check it out.

I really enjoyed this book but I’m having a hard time writing about it! I just like most everything – the mood, the setting, the focus on culture and spirituality, Lisa’s narrative voice. I didn’t like the ending. That’s pretty much all you need to know. Please humour me as I try to explain 😉

First and foremost, I love the atmosphere of this novel. I’m having a hard time putting it into words. The foggy atmosphere is created (for me) by the setting and tone/mood of the narrator. I love the British Columbia setting. I haven’t read many novels set in B.C., but Monkey Beach brought to mind A Tale for the Time Being. The dense forests coming to meet the vast ocean naturally creates a moody atmosphere. The setting helps to fuel the atmosphere of the novel. MJ wrote “I am not sure that I would call the mood of the book melancholic but it definitely had an unearthliness or other worldish aspect to it – most likely because the book was filled with so many references to the spirit world, the afterworld, ghosts, mythic creatures and living creatures (birds, seals, whales, crows, snakes, cats) all who seemed to have aptitudes and impacts far exceeding what non-native people usually attribute to these same creatures.” Well-said! I also enjoyed Lisa’s narrative voice, though it took me a bit to really settle into the reminiscent style. I didn’t realize most of the story would take place in the past. The mood felt like one shrouded in fog, I think one could describe the novel, at least in part, as an exploration of how we deal with different types of loss. The melancholic, distant feeling comes from looking back into the past, to those difficult memories.

I push myself out of bed and go to the open window, but they luanch themselves upward, cawing. Morning light slants over the mountains behind the reserve. A breeze coming down the channel makes my curtains flap limply. Ripples sparkle in the shallows as a seal bobs its head. (1)

I understood I had just had a vision, but I was afraid to think about what it meant. I went downstairs and waited until Jimmy woke an hour later. I followed him onto the porch as he took a bag of stale bread out to feed the crows for good luck. The crows fluttered around his feet. He seemed puzzled that I was watching him do what he’d done for years. (64% of part two)

Family relationships are at the heart of this story. Jane from BC writes, “I feel that Robinson is doing a great job of giving us a sense of place and the dynamics amongst the characters. So many sibling relationships that have been introduced and then the relationship between the generations.” Agreed! Many types of familial relationships are explored, both horizontal (siblings) and vertical (parents/aunts/etc.).

All major characters in the novel are Haisla. Indigenous spirituality plays a significant role, and was one of the most interesting parts of the story for me. This is where the ‘magical realism’ comes from, but I never thought of using that term until I read it in the discussion. If someone asked me for some magical realism to read, I wouldn’t recommend this book. Aboriginal experiences that one may often hear of, such as residential schools, play a less major role in the story, because Lisa herself wasn’t affected by them. One scene in particular (when Lisa stands up to a group of white guys and is almost attacked) stood out for me, though, and was tough to read. In my hometown, I hear too much about missing and murdered Indigenous women. There are too many of them, but what’s almost as sad is that while not every Indigenous women is going to be attacked, a large majority have experiences such as what Lisa had, some likely on a regular basis. For them it’s just a part of everyday life.

One struggle I had while reading this book was keeping track of Lisa’s age. I was very happy to read I wasn’t the only one with that problem! Her experiences are so much older than she is. I thought she was three or four years older than she actually was when she started smoking. Specific ages are rarely mentioned and I kept losing track. I was always surprised when an age was mentioned. It was always far younger than I thought. I wonder if this uncertainty about ages was intentional on the author’s part? I suppose you could look at it as a comment on memory, as some people in the discussion mentioned. I think also part of my issue was that I thought the Lisa we meet at the beginning of the story is also older, but she’s still young. I was surprised to find her reminiscing take us up to Jimmy’s decision to go fishing. I wasn’t expecting that.

The main qualm I have with the story is the narrative skipping over critical events (and just as I’m typing that I’ve thought – maybe it’s because Lisa doesn’t want to recall those awful, specific moments? But that’s beside the point here). Usually this type of narration really bothers me, and I was kind of bothered…but only because I usually am? Hah, what I guess I mean is. – the skipping over major events didn’t actively bother me until I thought about it afterwards – “Hey, how come I didn’t get to read about that? I’d rather read about it than find out in casually dropped comments!” I still enjoyed the book. So, I only became annoyed at the skipping when I thought about it because I enjoyed all the stuff I did read. It didn’t feel like I had missed out (though if I followed my usual reactions/logic, it felt like I did). My note during reading when this happened for the first time was “AUGH do I or do I not hate this convention?” (beginning of part two). Later notes include “not a fan of skipping big parts”, “boo why’s all the action off the page”, “another big off stage moment” but the last note is “I WANT ANSWERS but I’m kind of content”. A related note is that the reader doesn’t know much about many of the characters background, which I suppose is realistic given Lisa’s age. So much of your family’s relationships play out before your born. Michelle noted,  “What is interesting about this book is that we are left to fill in some of the stories of many of the characters- we know them, but not everything about them.” I think because we can fill in the gaps on our own, skipping the main scenes doesn’t bother me tooooo much. This ambiguity is why I’m giving it 3.5 stars here and 4 on GoodReads. If it bothered me more, I’d be going down to 3.

Please note: The next paragraph discusses the novel’s conclusion. Skip to The Bottom Line to avoid.

I don’t mind if characters die towards a novel’s conclusion and I don’t mind if the protagonist’s situation ends the same as it was (i.e, I just don’t want to see them worse off). Can you imagine really if Jimmy was dead? That’s the impression I got, but how awful that would be for Lisa. Jimmy’s death could be just another part of her story. It could have been portrayed like the others deaths. Because of my wish for Lisa not to lose another significant person in her life, I’m on the side that Jimmy lives. I don’t like that it’s so ambiguous, though.

The Bottom Line: A sad story, perhaps, but full of heart, featuring thoughtful and soothing (somehow, it was soothing to me) prose and beautiful locations. An intense examination of an Indigenous family. The conclusion may be difficult for some readers to accept but I still recommend it.

Further Reading: 

Review: A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

Author: V.E. Schwab
Title: A Darker Shade of Magic
Format/Source: ebook/Amazon
Published: February 2015
Publisher: Tor
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Magical fantasy
Why I Read: Excited to keep reading after the sneak peak
Read If You’re: Fantasy/magic fan, of the Gaiman variety
Quote: “The wall gave way and the traveller and the thief stepped forward and through.” (49%)
Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon

Whoop whoop. Now that it’s released and I’ve read the whole thing, I can build on my sneak peek comments. Did the story live up to my expectations? Mostly. Everything I loved about the sneak peek persisted throughout the book. But there’s one big thing that keeps me from giving this five stars (discussed after the spoiler warning).

Hm, but now that I’m writing this, there’s not much to add to my previous comments! I think the world-building aspect is covered by saying it lives up to the jacket description. I can add that you really get a sense of each London from the behaviour of its inhabitants. I love the eerie mob voice Schwab gives to the people of White London. My comment about characters is expanded below the spoiler warning. Regarding the prose – now that the final copy is available I can give a quote to demonstrate. This passage isn’t particularly shining but I noted it because I think it gives a strong of sense of Schwab’s style in this book.

Slowly, the man – or rather now, the thing inside him – lifted his head. His black eyes shone, slick against the dry dark as he surveyed the alley. Te body of the second cutthroat lay nearby, but he was already quite dead, the light snuffed out. Nothing to salvage. Nothing to burn. There wasn’t much life left in his own body, either – just enough flame to feed on – but it would do for now. (31%)

I can also add that I ship RhyLa (Are people calling them that? It’s not just me, right?). I made this note in the book before they even meet, on the line, “A procession was marching down the avenue” (52%). The pairing hadn’t crossed my mind until then, but the ship appeared before my eyes and I jumped on it. There might be a spark between them; they barely interact, but I’m intrigued to see if or how their relationship (romantic or not) develops.

Please noteThe remainder of this review contains significant spoilers. Skip to The Bottom Line to avoid.

Here’s a first for me – I think this book has too many deaths. Why are they so many? Almost every character who is introduced dies. These are characters who have personality and seem like they’d make great players in the ongoing story. They were barely around long enough for me to care (only in the sense that I thought, “Dang, that guy would have been fun to read about!”). One of the deaths is clearly meant to have an emotional impact on Lila, but because the reader knows so little of her and her relationship with Barron (erm, was that his name…), I didn’t feel too sad about it. Because there are so many deaths,  I’ve started to wonder if there’ll be some sort of return from the dead plot in the next book… did anyone else think the death toll was abnormally high?

While the story clips along, it concludes with many unanswered questions, particularly about our heroes Kell and Lila. I enjoyed reading about them, but I’m still very curious about their backgrounds and motivations. I especially want to know where Lila’s pirate ambitions come from! The book feels like an introduction to whatever is going to come next. Usually I like stories that are set in a big world but remain small and contained. However, this book finishes feeling almost too contained. You can guess at where the next book will go, but the conflicts present in this book are largely resolved. There’s not yet a greater thread that one might expect to be present in the first book of a series. I’m left wondering all about the few characters who survive the book and what they’ll be getting up to next. Something else I’m curious about is the character(?) of magic, how he(?) came to be, if ‘he’ was always that way (I’m not sure the best way to refer to this ‘character’, as you can see…I guess magic technically is a character but I feel strange referring to it/him that way!). I wasn’t expecting that sort of personification. Not sure yet how I feel about it. I don’t mind having all these questions because I enjoyed reading the book and I know there will be another, but I would have liked some tidbits to tide me over.

Some bit notes on Rhy, Holland and the Danes: I was really really glad when it was revealed Rhy was possessed and not actually terrible. I did get stressed out when it seemed he might die, cos at that point I wouldn’t have been surprised if he did (maybe that was the purpose of all the deaths?). Of the deaths, Holland’s was most shocking for me (okay, maybe tied with the Dane’s – I certainly didn’t expect both of them to be gone already!). I like the antagonist Antari. Going back to the Dane’s deaths, it felt a little quick and too easy for me liking.

Please don’t think I didn’t enjoy this book! I recommend it. There was just more to say about the thing that I didn’t care for than all the aspects I loved (style, world-building, characterization).

The Bottom Line: I enjoyed this book particularly for the setting, the atmosphere and the portrayal of magic. I look forward to the next book, where I hope we’ll get to meet new characters and learn more about Kell and Lila.

Further Reading: