Quick Review: Ambivalent

 These reviews are part of the Summer Library Challenge Week 6 Activity – Reviewing Library Books.

These books I read all the way through, but I’m not sure how I feel about them. Because of that, these books are difficult to review. I still wanted to document my thoughts so here are a few odd notes on each.

  • All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld
    • Rating: ★★-★★★½?  [ratings guide
    • I picked this book up because of the gorgeous cover, book description and four star reviews from a few bloggers I follow.
    • I thought the book had great atmosphere, moody and dark and solitary (reminded me of when I was running around with sheep in Ireland).
    • I kept waiting for something to happen in the present story-line but I found it extremely disappointing. I think I may have ~missed something~ there. A lot of somethings did happen in the past story-line but somehow it never really grasped me. 
    • I did not really like Jake, but I guess I liked reading about her?
    • The book felt empty to me, yet I read the whole thing quickly and without feeling like i should stop. So I must have liked something about it? I’m not too sure what else to say. I have confusing feelings about this book! I think I felt a bit let down by the book’s description – it’s not nearly as mysterious or fantastical as its made out to be.
  •  I Forgot to Remember by Su Meck and Daniel de Vise
    • Rating: ★★-★★★? [ratings guide
    • I find this book extremely hard to evaluate because I would essentially be evaluating someone’s life. You have to keep in mind that Meck lost all her memories, she has no knowledge of the first part of her life, she had to be completely re-educated, including how to read and write. I found a lot of parts of this memoir uncomfortable to read. It was not the sort of story I was expecting. I can’t believe how many years it took for people to start to realize what she really lost when the accident happened. I want to keep my concerns about this memoir to myself, since it’s a fresh story and because who I am to judge how someone’s life play out? Meck’s choice to tell her story in such a no-holds-barred manner is admiring, at the very least. I don’t think you can find many memoirs like this, where the author’s husband (to whome she is still married) is so thoroughly exposed. (Suffice to say, the husband’s behaviour is mostly terrible. But then, given the situation – like I said, it’s not my place to judge!)
    • The writing style is nothing impressive, but again – she had to learn to write again as an adult. That she can write this memoir at all is truly incredible.
    • My uncertainity over this book comes from the fact that the subject matter is undoubtedly interesting, but the how Meck’s life actually unfolds was not at all what I was expecting. Perhaps it’s a bit terrible of me to say this, but it wasn’t the story I wanted to read! That’s certainly not Meck’s fault, though, and her story is still fascinating. If the book’s description sounds interesting to you, I recommend you give it a shot. Maybe then my ramblings here will make a bit of sense… 

If you’ve read either of these books, I would love to hear what you think! Maybe reading other peoples’ opinions will help me sort out mine 😉

       

      Review: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

      Author: Ruth Ozeki
      Title: A Tale for the Time Being
      Format/Source: Hardcover/library 
      Published: March 2013
      Publisher:Viking
      Length: 403 pages
      Genre: Contemporary + splash of magical realism
      Why I Read: Canadian and Japanese characters/setting + pretty cover + on my radar
      Read If You’re: A fan of Haruki Murakami, the genre, or Japan
      Quote: “Or maybe none of these things will happen except in my mind and yours, because, like I told you, together we’re making magic, at least for the time being” (5).
      Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
      Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon

      The cover of A Tale for the Time Being caught my eye. Bright, bold, clean, and elegant, it stood out on the express shelf at the library. I had put it on my TBR list because the description mentions the 2011 Touhoku tsunami. I decided to sign it out because I’m off to Japan soon and want to read more Japanese-related literature. Though the tsunami is a part of the novel, it’s more of a background framing device than the primary focus on the novel. The story alternates between two storylines: the first-person narrative of Japanese schoolgirl Nao and the third-person narrative of Canadian author Ruth. Ruth finds Nao’s diary washed up on the shores of the remote British Columbian island where she lives (the tsunami comes into play as Ruth wonders how the diary could have reached her). Nao fills the diary with thoughts on her difficult life, while Ruth becomes absorbed in finding out what ultimately happened to Nao. Nao’s tale spans generations, including stories of her suicidal father, her Buddhist nun great-grandmother and her deceased kamikaze grand-uncle. Ruth’s story is less enticing than Nao’s as she functions primarily as a receptacle for Nao’s story. Regardless, the story captured by attention and I read at least 75 pages at a time. I only made three notes about this book. But, now that I’m ready to reflect, there is a lot about this novel to comment on (I think this is my longest review to date!).

      This book had many components that, when combined, create the sort of story I enjoy digging into. Some of the components are:

      • Observant and introspective narrators
      • Few but strong characters with deep relationships
      • Zen philosophy and practice
      • Vibrant settings in Japan and remote British Columbia
      • Exploration of the reader-writer relationship
      • Japanese involvement in WWII
      • Minor elements of magical realism (ex. ghosts)

      Each of these components alone are perhaps not enough to truly capture my interests. The first two points are what create a novel’s hook for me. I love this type of story, where the central character or two is a reflective observer, sharing thoughts both mundane and profound about themselves and the world around them. Maybe that’s why I have trouble connecting with books like The Girls at the Kingfisher Club.

      There are some very dark parts of this book, dealing as it does with nasty incidences of bullying, depression and suicide. I felt very uncomfortable during the height of Nao’s bullying and had a hard time accepting that this could be someone’s reality. Thankfully, Nao’s relationship with Jiko (spiritual, philosophical, grandmotherly) balanced the dark parts of the story for me, made them more bearable, as I think it did for Nao.

      A lot of the aspects of A Tale for the Time Being that I enjoyed can also be found in the works of Haruki Murakami, one of my favourite authors. Perhaps I enjoy this book so much because it reminds me of my favourite Murakami novel, Kafka on the Shore. It’s not that I like A Tale for the Time Being because it emulates Murakami; I like both of these novels because I like this type of story. Some similarities between the two that I like include:

      • Thoughtful young person struggling to find their place in Japanese society
      • Connection to old wars gone by
      • Touches of magical realism
      • Two interweaving storylines, one in first-person and one in third-person*

      Personally, I connected emotionally to Kafka but not to Nao. Kafka is so similar to me, while Nao has few experiences to which I can relate. This is why, and I emphasize again for me, Kafka on the Shore is a five-star novel while A Tale for the Time Being is a four-star novel. For another reader, Ozeki’s story could be the one she deeply connects with.

      I loved old Jiko and would have liked to read more about her. The book description states “[Nao] wants to accomplish one thing: to recount the story of her great grandmother, a 104-year-old Zen Buddhist nun, in the pages of her secret diary. The diary, Nao’s only solace, is her cry for help to a reader whom she can only imagine.” Nao’s documentation of Jiko’s life is a framing device through which Nao tells her own life story. Jiko has a prominent role in the story, but the book is Nao’s story. Nao expresses great pride in her great-grandmother’s life, but the reader only learns about Jiko’s final stages of life. I would have loved to hear more about Jiko’s younger days, as a feminist radical, and how (the why is briefly discussed) she transitioned to a Buddhist priest.  Jiko is not the main character in the novel, but she is the most fascinating to me and I would have been happy to read more about her.

      Ruth’s story has less plot than Nao’s, but I found her story calming and grounding even though it has moments of stress. I think this is because I can picture myself in Ruth’s position, out on this remote island living in a beautiful but discontent state of solitude. In Ruth, the reader encounters encounters a blurring of fiction and reality. Even from the sparse author description on the book, I recognized similarities between Ruth-narrator and Ruth-author. I wondered how closely the two are related (as I did with Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being), but I didn’t investigate further until after finishing the novel. With A Tale for the Time Being, we find an author who openly acknowledges how much of herself is in the fictional Ruth. Of course, the book is first and foremost a novel. I have been conditioned not to make sweeping correlations between fiction and reality based on what I’ve read in a novel**. Therefore, I find it fascinating when an author clearly recreates herself as a character in her own work of fiction. Here are some of Ozeki’s comments on including a version of herself in the novel (these quotes also speak to how the tsunami influenced the book):

      “At that point I realized that the book I’d written was not relevant anymore, and I needed to do something to address and respond to the events in Japan. Actually it was my husband who came up with the idea. He said, “Why don’t you put yourself in the book?” And that would give you a voice to use to respond to these events in a more direct way.” (Goodreads Interview)

      “The novel is told as a kind of dialogue with two interleaved voices, Nao and the Reader. I realized that Nao’s voice was still fine. The problem was the Reader I’d written. So I unzipped the manuscript, threw away that Reader and stepped into the role myself, as the character of Ruth. Somehow, stepping into the role as a semi-fictional version of myself seemed to be the only way of responding to the magnitude of the disaster, and once I did this, the writing came very, very quickly […] The character of Ruth in this book is me.” (Book Slut Interview

      Some final notes: The book contains a handful of experiments in typography. In one instance, Ruth imagines what ‘temporal stuttering’ would like if it were typed (228). Finally, my favourite passage in the book described “the cold fish dying in your stomach feeling” (180). I think it deserves to be quoted in its entirety, so skip if you’d rather read it in its natural habitat!

      It’s the cold fish dying in your stomach feeling. You try to forget about it, but as soon as you do, the fish starts flopping around under your heart and reminds you that something truly horrible is happening. Jiko felt like that when she learned that her only son was going to be killed in the war. I know, because I told her about the fish in my stomach, and she said she knew exactly what I was talking about, and that she had a fish, too, for many years. In fact, she said she had lots of fishes, some that were small like sardines, some that were medium-sized like carp, and other ones that were as big as a bluefin tuna, but the biggest fish of all belonged to Haruki #1, and it was more the size of a whale. She also said that after she became a nun and renounced the world, she learned how to open up her heart so that the whale could swim away. I’m trying to learn how to do that too. (180)

      The Bottom Line: I enjoyed this book particularly for the introspective narrative style. The bulk of the story describes the difficulties of an American-Japanese schoolgirl from her point of view, so if that sort of thing particularly disinterests you I would avoid this book. I strongly recommend A Tale for the Time Being if you appreciate observant narrators, Haruki Murakami novels, or Japanese culture.

      Further Reading: 

      *Though Ozeki’s novel is far less surreal and the connection between the storylines far more straightforward.

      **I attribute this particularly to The Lord of the Rings and The Fault in Our Stars. Tolkien vehemently disliked anyone trying to find allegorical meaning in his work. Tolkien famously wrote in his foreword to The LOTR, “I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author”. Regarding TFIOS, I have been a fan of the vlogbrothers and John Green’s writing since 2007. Green has always been very adamant (and rightly so) that his book is a work of fiction. As he writes in the author’s note to TFIOS, “neither novels or their readers benefit from attempts to divine whether any facts hide inside a story. Such efforts attack the very idea that made-up stories can matter, which is sort of the foundational assumption of our species”. I generally agree with both Tolkien and Green’s sentiments. I’m not immune to correlating fiction and reality when I think my reading of story will benefit from doing so, but I prefer to let a work of fiction stand for itself.

      Review: The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine


      Author: Genevieve Valentine
      Title: The Girls at the Kingfisher Club
      Format/Source: eBook/ARC
      Published: June 2014
      Publisher: Atria Books
      Length: 288 pages
      Genre: Fairy tale reworking/fiction
      Why I Read: 12 Dancing Princesses +Roaring Twenties!
      Read If You’re: Interested in fairy tales or sister relationships
      Rating:  ★★★ [ratings guide]
      I received a complimentary copy from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.
      GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Book Depository

      In The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, Genevieve Valentine sets the fairy tale of the “Twelve Dancing Princesses” in New York during the 1920s. The titular girls are twelve daughters of an awful man who wishes only to rise up in New York society. He keeps the girls locked up in the house, hiding the reminders of his wife’s failure to produce a son. He communicates only rarely with Jo, the eldest daughter, who is in charge of her sisters and organizes the nightly dancing. Her sisters call her the General for her controlling, cold behaviour. The father decides it’s the time the girls were married off, and this is where the story kicks off. The narrative is told in third-person, primarily from the perspective of Jo.

      I was initially apprehensive towards the style, as it’s not the kind I’m used to. It felt odd to me – choppy, sparse description, lots of parentheses – but I came to appreciate it once I settled into the rhythm. I do like the use of bracketed asides. At first I thought there were too many, but they level out and Valentine nearly always uses them to strong effect (to convey character, share a snippy piece of dialogue, etc.). The prose is very bare, focusing on the characters and their actions, their thoughts conveyed as part of their behaviour. In this manner the book feels like a fairy tale, which often just relay the action of the story. This is not a criticism – I liked that the story, despite being a novel and a modern reworking, still felt like a fairy tale due to its style and plot. There were lots of bits of prose where I thought “That’s a great line!”, and I enjoyed reading about the sisters’ interactions (how they act with each other, how they act with the men with whom they dance).

      However, the bare prose was cause for disappointment in another area. I was expecting a story where the era was as much of a character as the girls. This is not the case. It felt like the twenties were used as a setting just to give the girls a reason to go out dancing every night, although the decade is crucial to the plot beyond this. For me, the story didn’t truly feel as though it was set in the twenties, despite the use of keywords such as bob-haired, Charleston, and feather headbands. Perhaps the sense of being set in the twenties conflicts with the sense of the story being a fairy tale. I just didn’t feel it.

      I was prepared to embrace this book, as it has all the elements of a story I love. But something kept me from becoming completely enthralled. I didn’t feel pulled towards the story, though I didn’t ever feel like I should stop reading. Perhaps it’s the focalization of the story through Jo, who I never felt connected with, though I understood and sympathized with her actions. Or maybe it’s that the prose style, which I admired from a technical point of view, didn’t resonate with me emotionally. It could be that I never felt the twenties vibe which I was looking forward to. Whatever it was, something prevented this story from resonating with me. But, I liked reading this book. I don’t think it’s a bad book. Perhaps another reader might be able to connect with it.

      The Bottom Line: Something prevented me from deeply enjoying this book, though I can’t quite pinpoint why. However, it was an enjoyable read. Don’t read it because it’s set in the Roaring Twenties or because you’re looking for a deep story to connect with – read it because you love a fairy tale.

      Quick Review: Fun Reads

      These books I read for some casual reading – no critical analysis involved!


      • Cracks in the Kingdom by Jaclyn Moriarty
        • Series: The Colours of Madeleine #2
        • Rating:  ★★★ [ratings guide
        • When the first book in this trilogy came out last year, I was ecstatic to hear it described as Neil Gaiman meets John Green. Moriarty is the only other YA author I adore aside from Green, and Gaiman is one of my favourite authors, so I was excited to see what she would conjure in the fantasy realm. 
        • The first book felt to me like a prologue. The second book still feels the same way, although now I’ve finally realized that searching for the royal family is the whole plot, not just a little side story to be quickly resolved. To me, it feels like something is missing from these books. I can’t get invested in the story. The book feels too long, too drawn out. But if you like Moriarty, and you like fantasy, I think you will still enjoy this book. And if you’re like me, enticed by the idea of Gaiman+Green, do give it a shot!
        • I was a little disappointed at the typical teenager-y behaviour of the teenagers…this may sound like a silly complaint, but when compared to the teens of Moriarty’s other work, the characters in this book felt more stereotypical, less developed. I was disappointed by the bickering between Madeleine and Elliot, and the immaturity of Princess Ko (although her behavior is realistic, given that she’s lost her entire family). I don’t really think the characters are badly or unbelievably written. They’re just not what I’ve come to expect from Moriarty.
        • I love reading about the Kingdom of Cello and exploring its realms. I love how Moriarty handles magic. It feels fresh and exciting and I always wonder how it will factor into the story. The Lake of Spells was one of my favourite parts of the book.
      •  No Way to Treat a First Lady by Christopher Buckley
        • Rating: ★★★½ [ratings guide
        • Not the usual sort of book I pick up while browsing at the library, but I thought “Why not, sounds funny”.
        • Elizabeth MacMann, the titular First Lady, didn’t feel very developed. I felt distanced from her throughout the novel. I actually liked Boyce Baylor quite a bit, I found myself rooting for him!
        • The book was mostly funny and less dark than I expected it to be. I enjoyed reading the court room proceedings. 
        • I like that the reader doesn’t know who killed the President until the end.There was one point, around halfway through, where I thought “Wait, I bet this person did it!” but such thoughts didn’t distract from reading. It’s not like when I watch a crime show, always trying to deduce who did it. 
        • The book wasn’t spectacular but I did find it compelling, funny, and properly pace. This could be a good summer read if you’re interested in political, courtroom humour.

      Does anyone have any recommendations of Buckley’s other works, or similar books? I could use a funny read like this now and then!

      Review: The One & Only by Emily Giffin


      Author: Emily Giffin
      Title: The One & Only
      Format/Source: Paperback/ARC
      Published: May 2014
      Publisher: Ballantine Books
      Length: 400 pages
      Genre: Chick lit
      Why I Read:Won through GoodReads First Reads (unfamiliar with Giffin; description had potential)
      Read If You’re: In need of some football-themed chick lit and can overlook awful handling of rape
      Rating:  ★★ [ratings guide]
      I received a complimentary copy from the publisher through GoodReads First Reads in exchange for my honest review.
      Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon 

      I read this book in one sitting. I haven’t done that for a very long time. Normally, I would take that as an indication that a book is good. I think that’s why I initially rated it three stars on GoodReads – “If I read 400 pages in one evening, it must be good on some level!”. Upon reflection, I think it was more like “I can’t look away from this drama unfolding before me”. Full disclosure: I didn’t realize this novel would be chick lit. From the description on GoodReads, it sounded like it had potential to be an intriguing character study (along the lines of The Casual Vacancy). I hadn’t read anything by Emily Giffin and chick lit is not my usual fare. I may read one or two such novels every few years when I want something very fun and light. This book is ‘chick lit’, I think, but unlike any I’ve read before.

      I liked the beginning of the book. I like the use of a funeral as a framing device, allowing the reader to be introduced as they react to death. I liked the friendship between Lucy and Shea (hands up if you’d rather have read Lucy’s perspective). Their relationship was realistic and pure, not one-sided, not too catty. When crap hits the fan, I was pleased that Shea makes the right choice.

      The book description refers to an unexpected tragedy leading to a sudden upheaval. That tragedy (the funeral) is revealed on the first page, so it’s not nearly as dramatic as the description makes it out. Shea decides she needs to improve her life. The book is probably longer than it could be. I found the second quarter (between Shea deciding she needs to improve her life and those decisions actually panning out) a bit drawn out, but it’s an easy read so I blazed through the slow parts. Shea spectacularly transforms her life with none of the expected drawbacks, which was difficult for me to accept (details discussed below the spoiler cut). Having Shea drunk dial twice as a plot mechanism also irked me. Both times it felt awkward and unrealistic, a poor way to push the story forward. Once I might have forgiven, but twice felt silly.

      Beyond the sometimes unbelievable and sometimes slow plot, two aspects of this book disturbed me, both of which could be considered spoilers. For those of you who wish to avoid more specific spoilers, suffice to say there is an uncomfortable romantic relationship at the heart of the book and terrible handling of a character accused of rape.

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

      Back to Shea’s life transformation – she breaks up with her dull boyfriend to no consequence, quickly starts dating hot Dallas Cowboys quarterback without a hitch (I think they knew each other through college), and lands her dream job, virtually without issue. How her job plays out throughout the novel was the most unrealistic for me. A tough, old-school newspaper editor hires her to report on her own beloved team, even after he goes on and on about being unbiased in reporting. This felt like the author was attempting to manufacture conflict. I couldn’t believe that Shea would actually find herself in such a job. I expected her to get the reporting job, but not for her own team. Talk about too good to be true. In the end, there’s little consequence in anything related to the job. The controversy that could have been stirred up there dies a slow death and isn’t really resolved.

      I don’t know what to make of Coach Carr and Shea. The age difference is not a problem for me. The relationship becomes uncomfortable when you factor in…

      1. Carr’s wife has just died
      2. He’s Shea’s best friend’s dad
      3. He served as substitute father figure to Shea
      4. Shea hero-worships him to an obsessive extent (I think this hero-worship was supposed to recognized as ‘love’ when Shea finally admits it, but this is unclear) 

      Carr felt more like a father figure to me so the romance has undertones of creepiness, even if Shea and Carr are very cute with each other. If you removed the four factors above, I think it could have developed into a sweet, sexy relationship, something a little different, but then I guess it wouldn’t have been worth writing about because there wouldn’t be any conflict. Lucy’s initial reaction was believable, but her about-face at the end of the novel was not. I guess that’s what one has to expect in this genre.

      Far more disturbing than Carr and Shea’s relationship is the handling of rape accusations against Ryan. At first I thought maybe Giffin was just writing how the scenario unfortunately might have played out in the real, but the conclusions Shea draws about Ryan – that he’s incapable of rape, that he just needs counselling – are unacceptable in today’s climate, especially in a genre that caters to women! I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Carr and Shea dismiss the girl who brought forward the accusation because she’s known as something of a troublemaker. That’s an awful message to send. I was glad Shea was upset when she realized Carr did nothing many years ago when a young woman told him Ryan had raped her, but when she comes to same conclusion as Carr (that Ryan couldn’t have done it) especially AFTER he physically assaulted her – I was furious. She thinks he’s a great guy who has a few problems that just need to be sorted out. Disgusting.

      The Bottom Line: I don’t know how much football-themed chick lit there is, so this book could be filling a niche. The relationship between [redacted] and the responses to rape allegations could easily be enough to put off some readers, myself included.