Tumbling the building blocks: A review of Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl

Cover of How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

“So what do you do when you build yourself—only to realize you built yourself with the wrong things?”

How To Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

 It is 1990 and Johanna Morrigan is fourteen years old, living in Wolverhampton, a city in the English West Midlands, with her unemployed rock-star-wannabe father, depressed mother, two brothers, and twin babies. Johanna has more childcare duties and financial worries than any teenage girl should have to deal with and she ultimately dreams of finding a way out.

In order to make this happen, Johanna reinvents herself as Dolly Wilde–fast talking, hard drinking Lady Sex Adventurer and freelance music journalist. Johanna is determined to build herself in the best way she knows how: on the fly. As Johanna navigates her way through this adult world as a working class girl, her notes are as follows:

How to Build a Girl

By sixteen, Johanna is living the life of lots of sex, lots of drug, and lots of rock ‘n’ roll all in an attempt to build herself, but she soon wonders if during all these wild adventures whether she has gone about this whole “building herself business” in all the wrong ways, and can she change it?

How to Build a Girl is a fast- paced tale of a working class girl whose brains and way with words ensure that her everyday actions will lead to wild parties and unexpected opportunities that allow her to escape the drudgery that is Wolverhampton and somehow find success in the most round-about manner feasible.

This new book reads very much like Moran’s semi-autobiography; she also grew up in a large working class family and became a successful music journalist at a young age (although Moran declares it is pure fiction). Whatever the truth is, Moran has created an authentic teenage voice through her character Johanna. Moran puts the pubescent roller coaster on full display from the exaggerated emotional response to ANYTHING and EVERYTHING to the self-conscious body image moments in front of the mirror.

While Johanna is often over the top and highly excitable in all that she does, it is a very true-to-life portayal. Everyone as a teenager has had moments of exclaiming that it is the end of the world as he or she knows it because this or that happened etc. I believe I said this more than once while growing up…I sometimes still say it on occasion.

How to Build a Girl is also very frank about sex, specifically female sexuality. Moran does not shy away from the subject, but places it front and centre with a wank (specifically, Johanna masturbating in the dead of night next to her sleeping brother with a pillow between them for privacy, because, yes, young girls have urges too and those urges need to be satisfied). Aside from the occasional wank, Johanna also goes out and has lots of sex with lots of different people because, as Moran puts it, “it is what young teenage girls will do. It’s what I did. It’s what my friends did.” Moran said her intention behind this book and the character Johanna is to reclaim the word “slag” and “slut” from society’s shaming culture and renaming it fun names, such as “lady sex pirate” or “swash fuckler.” It’s not about shaming but experiencing. When I attended Moran’s launch at the Toronto Public Library’s Appel Salon, she described the teenage girl’s life in the perfect fashion: “It is about going out and having amazing experiences and awful experiences, which later turn into amazing anecdotes.” And she’s right, you know. After all, how many of us have gone out for drinks talking about our latest adventure in bed or otherwise, both good and bad? All of us, I would think.

While the reader may not be able to relate to everything Johanna goes through in the book, it is all honest and it is all written in a hilarious fashion that only Caitlin Moran is capable of. You may not always be able to say, “I’ve done that,” but you don’t mind going along for the ride with this fun and easy read.

Essentially, How to Build a Girl is about class, social privilege, feminism, and building yourself and rebuilding yourself as you go through life. Johanna may think she has the right building blocks at first, but she soon learns there is no right or easy way to build yourself. Johanna Morrigan is a beautiful work in progress and Caitlin Moran’s book ends with a promise that we haven’t seen the last of this spunky teenage girl.

5 out of 5 book thumbs up

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How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran, published in Canada by HarperCollins Canada, © 2014

Available at Indigo, Amazon, and independent bookstores everywhere.

Is the uprising over yet? — A review of Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Mockingjay Cover

“You’re still trying to protect me. Real or not real?” he whispers.

“Real.” I answer. “Because that’s what you and I do, protect each other.”

*Some SPOILERS, but very minimal*

Panem is in chaos. After the Quarter Quell Hunger Games is interrupted by Katniss’ planned rescue from the arena, the uprising is in full swing. Those who were safely rescued alongside Katniss and anyone from District 12 before its nuclear destruction have been relocated to District 13’s underground encampment. By design, Katniss has unknowingly been made the symbol of this revolution started by District 13 as a ploy to take over the Capitol and restore it as a republic. Now that she has survived, it is expected that Katniss become the rebels’ pawn as their Mockingjay, however, she’s not so sure she wants all the responsibility the position requires of her. While her family may be safe, Katniss’ list of casualties that she blames herself for keeps growing and she constantly fears Peeta being made an addition the longer he remains in the Capitol’s hands. Consumed by her desire to kill President Snow and save Peeta but forever distrustful of District 13’s true motives, Katniss faces quite the emotional battlefield aside from the battle going on in Panem itself.

Before reading Mockingjay, I had been told by others that it wouldn’t live up to my expectations and that the final book failed where the first two succeeded. I remained skeptical; I mean, how bad could it be?

They were right.

Mockingjay is the definition of a final book quickly written to fulfill reader demand due to the series’ sudden claim-to-fame. For the majority of the book, there is an extreme lack of action or plot development. Katniss is barely part of the revolution and is seen mainly wandering around District 13, loopy on medication, and either doing or not doing what people tell her to. In the first two books, Katniss is in the thick of the action from preparing for the Hunger Games to surviving the Hunger Games. Everything slows down to an aggravating pace in Mockingjay. Most of what we hear is through hearsay or propaganda campaign face-offs between the rebels and Snow while Katniss awkwardly stands by, virtually useless and just a face.

Katniss is barely involved in the revolution and when she does go to one of the battlegrounds, her involvement is limited and it is only by pure accident that she gets any action when Capitol forces take them by surprise. The strong young woman who inspired this revolution to begin with is no where to be seen in this third and final book. Instead, every time Katniss gets any action, she is surrounded by a full team of body guards. When we do finally get to the Capitol and Katniss is in the midst of it, everything still feels very much told. I would almost compare Katniss to a block of wood at this point. Yes, the whole is to show Katniss as a generally closed off and conflicted individual, but we are supposed to be inside her head, right? But the reader does not feel the danger or urgency of the situation simply because Katniss’ reactions come across as staged and not genuine. Honestly, I no longer feared for her well being as I had in the previous books. Even when Katniss wasn’t on medication for a wound or her emotional hysterics, she still felt like a drugged character going through the motions.

The only one who kept the plot interesting was Peeta and his dramatic transformation into a danger not only to Katniss but to himself. The Capitol’s mind games and torture methods have destroyed him and turned him into a monster, a reality he soon realizes once he is rescued and detained in District 13’s medical ward. Peeta’s struggle to remember what is real and what isn’t is heart wrenching, targeting the reader’s empathy. It is only after having Peeta return to the plot action that Mockingjay begins to pick up the pace, if only slightly. The love triangle is reignited between Peeta, Katniss, and Gale, so while the revolution still feels distant at least there is an evident struggle in the limelight of Katniss’ often tiresome soliloquies.

Needless to say, I was disappointed. Mockingjay felt like a cop out. A quick, not-so-dirty finish to a series that started of great and then came to a lame finish. The ending felt waaaaaaaay too simple and easy for a trilogy that started off with kids killing kids for the entertainment of a sadistic government.

I hate to say it, but my money is on the movie (Part 1 is coming out this November). For once, Hollywood has a chance to make the book better. Good luck!

2 out of 5 book thumbs up

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Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins, published in Canada by Scholastic Canada © 2010.

Available at The Scholastic Store, Amazon, Indigo, and independent bookstores everywhere.

What truly matters: A review of The Tiny Wife by Andrew Kaufman

the tiny wife book

“…the vast majority of you, if you even believe you have a soul, believe it sits inside you like a brick of gold….nothing could be further from the truth.”

The Tiny Wife by Andrew Kaufman

After attending the book launch for The Tiny Wife, I was intrigued by the book’s imaginative content, and I had to experience it for myself. Being a short book, it only took me a one-way train ride home to finish it. I experienced a whole range of emotions while reading it, from the humorous chuckle to the perplexed mumble.

I won’t bother giving the usual quick summary in this review, as that can already be found on the blog via the book launch post from earlier (link provided above).

illustration in the tiny wifeMetaphorical and witty, The Tiny Wife is a joy to read. While its language is simple, its meanings are complex and full of wisdom. After being robbed, strange events start to happen for all of those involved, many of which are not plausible. But all of these happenings are significant.

The woman who is chased by her lion tattoo is being chased for a reason. Her name is Dawn, and the lion tattoo represented the moment she finally got the courage to break up with her boyfriend. Now this very tattoo has come to life and is chasing her all over the city non-stop. It is not until Dawn finally stops to look at the lion that she realizes she has nothing to fear at all. The lion’s features are not menacing but quizzical. As a result, Dawn is able to send it after the robber instead, who she randomly runs into in the market. The meaning I took from this scenario is that running from your problems does not solve them in the long run, and one moment of courage isn’t enough. Dawn needed to embody that courage fully, which meant more than just physically representing it through the tattoo. There are a couple other scenarios I enjoyed, such as the man who has carried around a refused engagement ring for months. His metaphorical awakening is just as powerful, involving the woman he thought he loved, a broken heart, and a moving vehicle. You’ll have to read it to find out why.

However, because the book was so short, I do feel that a lot was missed out on. I was still very curious about what happened to all the other characters who had something of emotional value taken from them. What did they give to the robber? Did they save their souls? Or did they all wink out of existence instead? The book left me wanting more, but that is often the nature of a novella.

I also found that some metaphors alluded me, such as the man who gave the robber a wedding picture of his wife’s parents. What does tying his shoes, suddenly declaring he is leaving his wife, only to find she is already gone actually mean? I can’t figure it out for the life of me. Perhaps I am the only one with this problem, but these small unknowns left me puzzled and fearful that I was missing out on something that was supposed to be evident but wasn’t. This power of subtlety, while frustrating on occasion, is also the genius of Kaufman’s writing, and I’m just sorry that I’m missing out on some of it. This is also why Kaufman’s ending is so satisfying, as you will find out when you read the book yourself. In regards to Kaufman’s main characters, you can understand the metaphorical growth that happens between Stacey and her husband, David during this whole odd experience of  her shrinking bit by bit each day—it is, ironically, a growth that is gradual and natural, that which easily resonates with everyday people and everyday life.

Stacey’s husband, David is also the narrator, which is an interesting feature in The Tiny Wife. Obviously, because David wasn’t physically there, he is telling the story based purely on what Stacey has told him. Some of the holes in the story make sense due to this limited point of view. It is also interesting because, like David, we are outsiders to these events.We arrive at the same conclusions and experience the same epiphanies alongside David, unless he gives us a peak at information he was given at a later point in time. I think this was a great stylistic choice on Kaufman’s part, as it gives the story a different dimension. We aren’t privy to Stacey’s deepest thoughts and emotions, which leaves a lot of room for interpretation instead of just being told the facts. It is a less heavy-handed approach I sometimes enjoy.

Now, I can completely understand Kaufman’s personal message in my copy now: “Don’t let this happen to you.” Well, I will definitely not be letting this happen to me, but if I come close, I can always be reminded to cherish what is most important in life by reserving an hour to reread The Tiny Wife.

4 out of 5 book thumbs up

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The Tiny Wife by Andrew Kaufman, published in Canada by Cormorant Books © 2014

Available at Indigo, Amazon, and independent bookstores everywhere.

 

 

And the wheel stops turning… – A review of A Memory of Light, Book 14: The Final Volume by Robert Jordan

A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan

“All was shattered, and all but memory lost, and one memory above all others, of him who brought the Shadow and the Breaking of the World. And him they named Dragon.”

A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

*Some Spoilers…but not many.”

I don’t think I can give a decent review of this book, simply because I have been reading the books for a span of twelve years (as I’m sure most of Robert Jordan’s fans have — He is similar to George R.R. Martin in that way). Naturally, I have forgotten some important features of the series and I have also lost my intimate knowledge of the characters. However, this lapse of memory will not deter me from writing a simple review and final farewell to the first-ever colossal series I started as a young adult.

A Memory of Light is the third and final contribution Brian Sanderson has made to the series while filling in for Robert Jordan (The man did as he promised and wrote until they nailed his coffin shut). Throughout this giant book, standard size in the series, we witness all the events leading up to and that are a part of the Last Battle. It is a harrowing struggle between the Light and the Dark, however, the battle seems quite sour with Egwene’s and Elayne’s armies being overwhelmed by Shadowspawn. The Dark One seems to have an endless supply of Trollocs to throw in their direction. Sticking together, the armies of the Light bond together in support of Rand and the single objective of defeating the Dark One before he can take full grasp of the world. However, it takes every effort to hold on long enough in the hope that Rand will emerge victorious before their strength wanes entirely.

A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan coverLike I said, it has been while since I’ve read the series, so my memory of each book is foggy at best. But, in regards to the series overall, I found this book not so dragged out with extended events that disengaged the main characters, like Matt and Perrin, from the main storyline. Previous books usually had them gallivanting off in different directions. It was refreshing to see all the characters united in a single cause yet still independent from one another. Matt is still adorable in his quirky and humorous mannerisms, but he also becomes more responsible—a leader. Perrin is still that pillar of silent strength and endurance, but in the same way that Matt develops, we see Perrin finally accept himself as both man and wolf rather than constantly battle between the two. This acceptance makes him suddenly a formidable force that Slayer can’t possible compete with in the end. I especially enjoyed Egwene’s transformation. She truly became a magnificent Amyrlin Seat, unsurpassed by all who came before her and likely all who came after. She leads the battle until she is spent and she doesn’t break even when she experiences the greatest loss an Aes Sedai can experience.

Everyone seemed to solidify as individuals by the end of the book, making sacrifices and decisions that defined them. I was still unsatisfied with Rand, though. He seems to lose his three-dimensional aspects and became very simple in his characterization: I must say goodbye, defeat the Dark One, and die. Okay, Rand, that’s great and all, but who are you, really? I wasn’t convinced I knew him in the same way I got to know all the other principal characters by the end of the book. A lot of people in the series talk about liking Rand before he was the Dragon Reborn, and I can’t help feeling the same way. He was a lot more complicated and colourful in his characterization and becoming the Dragon Reborn should have only amplified that rather than dim it completely.

The Last Battle is where all the action happens, and it takes up a good chunk of the book (The chapter is over 100 pages long!!!). I didn’t mind the chapter’s length, however, as much as I minded the repetition beforehand: “Last Battle this” and “Last Battle that.” The redundancy of those two words became exhausting, and the importance of this event was gradually eroded away. A little variance in the gravity of the situation would have been appreciated.

The Last Battle lived up to its name. There was chaos. There was death (some heart wrenching). It was a magnanimous struggle. I was thoroughly enthralled with the battle on all sides. The intensity was catching as the armies dealt with heavy losses, traitors in their midst, and the Forsaken trying to undermine them at every turn. Alas, there is another “but.” Purely caught up in the battle raging outside Shayol Ghul, I was severely disappointed that the same intensity was not developed in the battle between Rand and the Dark One. Instead of this grand final fight between the two, there was only “mind games,” creating imagined worlds based on who won. The plot slowed down horribly whenever Sanderson focused on Rand. I don’t know about anyone else, but I had a lot of “raised eyebrow” looks for these scenes. For all the hype generated for this battle and what it would mean if they lost, I wasn’t convinced. The battle was very figurative and abstract, which failed to keep me interested when so much more exciting action was happening elsewhere, and that elsewhere was where I felt the most investment in the storyline.

I did enjoy A Memory of Light, despite its flaws. It was the end of the series and, for the most part, a fitting one. We saw where everyone ended up, and we were left with a bit of mystery to play with (after all, “all-wrapped up nicely” endings are old school these days).

Wheel of Time series quote

Farewell, Wheel of Time, it has been a pleasure going on this twelve-year journey with you.

4 out of 5 book thumbs up

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A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson published in the USA by TOR Fantasy © 2013

Available at TOR, Indigo, Amazon, and independent bookstores everywhere.

 

Catherine not so Great: A review of Empress of the Night

Empress of the Night

“I shall either rule or perish. This is what I’ve learned.”

Empress of the Night by Eva Stachniak

*SOME SPOILERS*

At the precipice of a deadly cliff, Russia’s fate hangs in the balance. Catherine the Great is dying. In her final hours, as the rest of the Russian court vie for position and order to quell the mounting chaos, Catherine relives her impressive rise to power, how she ruled and how she loved. As Catherine reflects on her life, the reader is taken back to her arrival as Sophie, a young and seemingly insignificant princess of Anhalt-Zerbst betrothed to Russia’s heir Peter III.

Destined to be an unhappy marriage, readers are given a glimpse into Catherine’s struggle to please Elizabeth, the then controlling Empress of all the Russias, and her husband, who is more interested in his toy soldiers and battle strategy than getting to know his new wife. Isolated and ignored, Catherine looks for love elsewhere, but it is not until she meets the dashing young officer Grigory Orlov that she finds true love as well as true ambition, and with his help she seizes the Russian throne out from under her incompetent husband’s feet. However, the greatest love of her life arrives when she is Empress, Grigory Potemkin, and it is with him that Catherine soars, taking Russia to its new potential as a powerful and influential empire in the field of war and politics.

But keeping her position proves to be a constant battle of wits, knowing who to trust and who to deceive and sometimes, despite her best efforts, love has to come second. Nearing the end of her reign, Catherine attempts to prepare Russia for a new ruler, one who is not her first born son but her grandson Alexander (who would become Alexander I and Napoleon’s greatest opponent). Conditioned for the throne from the beginning, Catherine knows he will make a great ruler, but even Catherine the Great cannot control what happens beyond the grave.

I cannot emphasize enough how much I wanted to love this book. Catherine the Great has been an important historical woman of strength in my life: one who took what she wanted against all odds, expanding and strengthening Russia so all of Europe would recognize it as a fellow superpower. I remember looking up in awe at the floor-to-ceiling portrait Catherine had commissioned of herself after her coup: a woman in complete control her power that said to all of Russia that she was a woman, but a woman with the capabilities of a man to rule and rule well. I didn’t see this woman in Stachniak’s portrayal.

I realize that the mantra these days in publishing is “sex sells” ever since Fifty Shades of Grey took the book world by storm (an unfortunate event). However, I deliberately don’t pick up those books for a reason, which was why I became disappointed with this second installment to the Catherine the Great trilogy when Catherine’s sex life and exchanging of sex partners dominated the book’s storyline from the get-go.

The book was already off to a rocky start when after a brief prelude, introducing the fact that Catherine is looking back on her life while she is on her deathbed, it for the most part repeated events from The Winter Palace only this time from Catherine’s point of view. I found this to be an unnecessary recap. Readers are likely to have already read The Winter Palace and aren’t looking to read the same story twice.

After this slow start, I had higher hopes for the rest of the book to show me Catherine’s attributed greatness, but instead I was continuously given accounts of her loves, one after the other. Fair enough, Catherine was known for her sexual appetite and the glamorous gifts, such as entire palaces, that she bestowed on her favourites, but that wasn’t all that I came to read about. I found myself asking, “Where is the politics? Where is the diplomacy?” Throughout Empress of the Night the wars Catherine fought in, the foreign negotiations she headed were only briefly mentioned in passing before it moved on to her newest lover or her lack of libido in her old age.

I suppose one could say Stachniak is attempting to show the woman without the crown, and I truly appreciate the goal of showing the more human side of history’s most magnanimous rulers, but a more balanced combination of fact and fiction would have been appreciated. Solely looking at Catherine from an amorous perspective is lovely, but not when her choices and actions begin to appear ruled by men. Yes, Catherine shows strength and control, but there was only one occasion that I truly witnessed the Catherine the Great I had wanted to see the entire time, which was when she put her newest dopey lover, Platon, who was in constant need of reassurance, in his place when speaking of age and Bonaparte: “…Bonaparte takes his army to the mountains. Spreads his forces out, so the Austrians spread their forces out. Then he concentrates his troops and strikes them at the weakest points. The man is unstoppable…Bonaparte…is only twenty-seven years old” (Platon is twenty-nine). I was impressed after reading this, as I had glimpsed the Catherine who did indeed rule—as Beyoncé would say, “Bow down, bitches!”

But alas, this scene was only a brief moment of respite from the fairly dry repertoire that Empress of the Night became for me. Also, one thing that truly irked me was a sex scene near the beginning of the book. Spoiler alert, but I am sorry, I cannot for the life of me see Catherine the Great allowing her head to be forcefully pushed down beneath the covers and into a man’s nether regions no matter how much she loved him…perhaps initiating the act herself, taking control as only a great woman knows how, showing that she owns him and not the other way around; but this is just my opinion and purely a subjective one, I suppose, although I think a few other readers may agree with me.

Stachniak’s powerful imagery remains, however, and I was once again transported back to Russia. But without the vibrant character of Empress Elizabeth to steal the show away as she did in the previous book, the storyline fell flat. Similarly to Catherine collapsing into a state of foggy incoherence at the beginning, the reader is never quite alert to the events that follow.

If you want to know the Catherine who ruled and not the men she bedded, I suggest you read Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie. While I haven’t read the book myself, Massie is a renowned biographer of Russian rulers. Considering how much I love Catherine the Great’s story, I obtained a copy of the book unsure of when or if I would actually read it (I don’t read a lot of nonfiction–a respite I have been thoroughly indulging in ever since graduating university); however, Massie’s book has moved up in the “to read” pile. I usually forgo the history lesson for the fictional story with the history, but I still haven’t met Catherine the way I had envisioned—It seems nonfiction is now the way to go.

A small spoiler: Catherine dies at the end of Stachniak’s book after a long and drawn out trip down memory lane. There is one more book left in Stachniak’s Catherine the Great trilogy, although there will be no Catherine in the next one, as far as I can tell. I want to say I will continue with the series, as I do hate giving up on books, which was why it took me so long to finish this one, but at this point in time I am undecided. Unless the descriptive copy is a stellar grabber, I might have to bid adieu to this trilogy that had the best of intentions but personally didn’t take me where I wanted to go.

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2 out of 5 book thumbs up

First Reads copy via Goodreads provided to me by Random House of Canada.

Signed copy provided to me by Helen Heller Agency Inc.

 

Empress of the Night by Eva Stachniak, published by Doubleday, Random House of Canada, © 2014

Available at  Random House of CanadaIndigoAmazon, and independent bookstores everywhere March 25, 2014.

 

Reading kills: A review of The Accident by Chris Pavone

book cover for The Accident by Chris Pavone

“He runs his finger down the page, and he finds it, there on page 136, just as his mind’s eye pictured it, in his sleep in the middle of the night. One word. One letter. I. He thought he’d caught every one.”

The Accident by Chris Pavone

Isabel Reed, a 40-something literary agent, receives an anonymous and mysterious manuscript, which is the unofficial biography of media mogul Charlie Wolfe and has the potential to collapse his Wolfe Media empire. The consequences of publishing the manuscript are numerous, but the benefits are too tempting to pass up in an industry that is struggling to make ends meet with editors and agents desperately seeking their next big break. However, there are people who have been anticipating this manuscript’s arrival on the publishing scene long before the manuscript is couriered to Isabel’s door, and they will do whatever it takes to make sure The Accident doesn’t see the printing press.

I don’t usually read books from the thriller or mystery genre, but when I won The Accident by Chris Pavone in a RHC Goodreads giveaway, I had to give it a try, and I am certainly glad that I did. Not only is The Accident about the publishing industry, a topic I am obviously partial to, but it is exciting! The book covers just 24 hours and it is chock full of adrenaline pumping action.

The main character is Isabel Reed, a well-recognized literary agent who, at the moment, hasn’t been performing at her best. Life hasn’t turned out as she had expected it to, divorced and living alone, and she is constantly haunted by the unfair loss of her child (the “how” isn’t introduced until much later in the book). It is the arrival of the anonymous manuscript that begins Isabel’s rude awakening from her monotonous lifestyle as new secrets are revealed, including one that has been long buried involving a drunken car ride and a missing girl.

Over the course of one very long day, the manuscript gets its fair share of traffic, but the people who pursue it for their own ends have a lot more to fear than just a paper cut: Isabel’s eager assistant, Alexis, sees The Accident as her big break; Jeff, an old friend and veteran editor sees it as his chance to redeem his career before it landslides; Camilla, an ambitious rights director, wants to leave behind books for movies and sees The Accident as her one-way ticket to fame and fortune; Brad, the publisher, thinks The Accident may save his business; and, the most sinister of all, Hayden, a wily CIA operative with damaging connections to Wolfe, is determined to eliminate the manuscript at all costs—and that includes anyone who gets in the way. All the while, the author observes from afar, remaining hidden in an expensively obtained expat life in Zurich, wrestling with the truths and lies that define him and the story he is trying to tell.

The writing of The Accident is designed for the fast-paced thriller that this book is meant to be. There is no break to the action after Isabel finishes reading the anonymous manuscript that is sent to her door. The content is dangerous and no one is safe after reading it. I was on the edge of my seat the entire time while reading, desperate to know if Isabel would be able to keep one step ahead of Hayden and his goons.

While the book was gripping in every way possible, I did find the result of its suspense unsatisfying. Almost every chapter, nearing its end, led up to a culminating moment, a question of life or death, which is suppose to be thrilling, no? Unfortunately, Pavone sells out at the end of some of his chapters,and it is as if he got fed up with the action leading up to this final point and decided to simply drop the bombshell on his readers: and then this happened. End of story. I found my anticipation climbing to an apex, only to have it suddenly deflated. I would have liked to have a seen a smoother transition to the end result, one that still had impact, but wasn’t a disappoint after all that careful preparation for it.

Aside from this one setback, Pavone does an amazing job in setting the scene. As a past editor himself, he demonstrates his knowledge of the publishing industry, going to great lengths to describe the dog-eat-dog world of agents and editors looking for the next bestseller and the apparently dismal state of the industry itself. While I found his view of publishing a little disheartening (I don’t think it is as hard done by as Pavone lets on), he is for the most part true to life, depicting the long hours, struggling with the reality of a career with not so great pay, and dealing with difficult authors. However, I don’t think a manuscript this threatening has ever come onto the real publishing scene, thank goodness. I for one don’t want to fear for my life when I edit a manuscript, as exciting as the idea may be to read about.

I will admit that Pavone had me duped until near the very end of The Accident. I had tried to guess and perhaps, to the more experienced thriller/mystery reader, I missed some of the more obvious clues, hinting at who the author really was and his connection to the other characters in the book, aside from Charlie. But I am also glad that I didn’t uncover the truth. As a result, the “ah ha” moment was far more enjoyable, and I greedily went over the earlier details given in the book. I was then able to smile appreciatively at Pavone’s vague statements that betray just an inkling of the truth, which is not quite enough to ruin his grand unveiling later on.

A well-crafted mystery and a thrilling read, The Accident will grip you and leave you wondering, “who really won?”

3 out of 5 book thumbs up

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First Reads copy via Goodreads provided to me by Random House of Canada.

The Accident by Chris Pavone, published by Crown, © 2014

Available at Random House of Canada, Indigo, Amazon, and independent bookstores everywhere March 11, 2014.

 

 

 

 

 

Honeyed русский whispers: A book review of The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak

book cover of the winter palace by eva stachniak. image of a woman's golden dress

“Behind every great ruler lies a betrayal…”

The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak

There are so many myths and misguided perceptions of what the large land mass of eastern Europe consists of. From rumours of a single surviving Romanov to whispers of a Soviet resurgence, Russia is full of mystery…and deception—or at least that is how Eva Stachniak portrays the Russian imperial era in her book The Winter Palace.

With a love for anything and everything to do with Russia ever since my first Russian history course in university, I was naturally very excited to read this book. While it has taken me at least a year to do so since its original release date, I have finally had a chance to read Stachniak’s proclaimed masterpiece.

The book is narrated by Barbara—or Varvara, in Russian—, who is a the daughter of a Polish bookbinder working for the royal Russian family. It is after the death of both her parents that Varvara also comes into the employ of the Empress Elizabeth. Initially, Varvara is simply one of the many seamstresses set to work on Elizabeth’s extensive closet; however, one night, she is discovered by Elizabeth’s chancellor, Count Bestuzhev and under his tutelage, Varvara learns how to become the “eyes and ears” of the Winter Palace, for him and for the empress. Assigned to assist and spy on the Crown Prince Peter, Varvara is introduced to the art of deception and thrust into a world of luxury and debauchery, which is consistently masked by gold, glitter, and fine foods. The Winter Palace is also where Varvara meets the newly arrived Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg, the Crown Prince’s betrothed. Varvara ends up befriending this German princess, now named Catherine, while Peter ignores his wife-to-be, more interested in playing at war.

Most readers, such as I, would already be aware of the outcome, knowing that Peter is an incompetent ruler and no match for Catherine’s intelligence and diplomatic skill. Therefore, no foreshadowing is necessary to know that Catherine the Great triumphs and takes the Russian throne for herself—a German immigrant now Empress of All the Russias. But while this is the result Stachniak’s novel leads up to, it is not the tale she has decided to tell. Instead, The Winter Palace is an exposé of the palace’s more sinister side, where there are always concealed intruders and easily bribed servants.

Stachniak outdoes herself in setting the scene with layers upon layers of marble, gold, and amber, building the Winter Palace up before the reader’s eyes with remarkable glittery detail. She also brings to life the wide array of foods consumed at the court, which inspired odd cravings, as I found myself lusting for honey-covered cucumbers, Catherine’s favourite snack.

However, while Varvara may be telling the story and Catherine may be strategically planning for ascension to the throne, Stachniak is unable to bring the same intensity she easily provides Empress Elizabeth with. No other character speaks and acts with the same spirit and vitality. Simultaneously, she inspires awe and repulsion, keeping the reader in suspense as Elizabeth moves between kindness and cruelty as easily as time passes from day to night.

Unfortunately, the more I became fascinated with Elizabeth, the less I was convinced by Varvara’s and Catherine’s characters. While Vavara narrates all that is happening, she is also hiding behind this detailing of acts of conspiracy and spying. There is little else to identify her with. Vavara’s secret alliance with Catherine as her confidante also falls short, as the same level of intimacy achieved in the conversations between Varvara and Elizabeth is not translated when she is in closeted conversations with Catherine.

Catherine is aloof and often, disappointingly so, fades into the background. I really would have liked to see more personality from both Varvara and Catherine, rather than having both of them so easily subsumed by Elizabeth’s more eccentric and compelling characterization. It was almost a pity to see her go.

Slow to begin and slow to end, The Winter Palace is a commitment the reader must want to make, as it is only in its middle that the story truly has the potential to grab you, as Varvara navigates her way through the dusty passages of the Winter Palace, listening, learning, and spinning stories to help or to hinder those she’s required to confide in.

Stachniak’s ends the first book of her Catherine the Great trilogy anti-climatically with few reassurances. As time progresses after Catherine’s coup, Varvara becomes disillusioned and unsure of her “friendship” with the new ruler; Catherine’s character remains just as impenetrable as before and this time, the reader is not alone in this deduction.

The Winter Palace, while not being what I had expected, was a delightful read that returned me to Russia in all her imperial glory. However, Stachniak didn’t just allow me to walk the grand halls of the Winter Palace for a second time, she married time and place together in perfect unity, making my memories a living portrait of eighteenth-century Россия, and with her sequel just a little over a week away from its official release date, I am intrigued to see where she will take Catherine’s story and her infamous reign next.

Russia 524

3 out of 5 book thumb’s up

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The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak, published in Canada by Doubleday, © 2012

Available at Random House of CanadaAmazonIndigo, and independent bookstores.

Stealing Hitler’s words: A review of The Book Thief

Cover image of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

“It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and it will become busier still.”

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

It is simple enough for me to say that I love most books, but there are few books that have also had the ability to dominate my emotions in such a way that they are torn from my inner core and put on full display, smeared across the pages. The Book Thief is one of those books. It is also one that I have been wishing to read for awhile now and now that I have, I am very glad that I did. While I’m late to the bandwagon, I think it is appropriate that I read it now; not only has a movie adaptation been released, but Markus Zusak, an already bestselling and well-known author, also won the annual Margaret Edwards Award this year for his contribution to young-adult literature in the US.

On that rewarding note, in The Book Thief, Markus Zusak tells his story in a fascinating combination of first- and third-person narration. The first-person narrator is Death personified, but not in the stereotypical fashion you would automatically imagine. No, Zusak’s perception of death is like that of meeting an old friend, which is very humanizing, almost comfortingly so. There is no figure cloaked in dark robes carrying a scythe, but rather he arrives as a source of solace for the numerous dead and dying during the war.

For a quick summary, although I’m sure everyone knows this by now, The Book Thief follows the life of a young German girl, Liesel Memminger, who is given into foster care by her mother for her own protection. It is on this journey to her new home that Liesel commits her first act of book thievery, on her way to becoming the infamous book thief. Death comes into contact with her for the first time here when her brother passes away in his sleep, and it is during her brother’s brief funeral that Liesel finds and takes The Grave Digger’s Handbook, accidentally left in the snow presumably by a young grave digger apprentice. It is upon this discovery that Liesel’s obsession with books and words is born, and under the guidance of her accordion-playing foster father, Hans Hubermann, she learns to read.

The narrative shifts between Liesel’s experiences occasionally interjected with Death’s own narration as he watches Liesel and collects the dead across Europe, revealing the turmoil occurring beyond Liesel’s everyday activities on Himmel Street. These activities range from stealing books from the mayor’s wife’s library to refusing requests for kisses from her best friend and partner in crime, Rudy Steiner. However, dangerous times come to Himmel Street when Max Vandenburg, a Jewish man in hiding, knocks on the Hubermann door, the result of a promise to the wife of a dead comrade after the First World War. As the war comes closer and bombs are fly overhead, Liesel’s world is both opened and closed, as she realizes the sheer force encapsulated in the words she has learned to read — words that can be used for good as well as for evil.

While the book starts out somewhat slowly, there is a lot to love about the craftsmanship behind Zusak’s writing, which is both elegant and moving. His decision to tell his story through Death’s eyes is ingenious. Immediately, the reader is forced to bear witness to Death’s sharp matter-of-fact statements on the rising number of dead and the Jewish “showers” while at the same time being lulled by the innocent play between Liesel and Rudy, as they exchange humorous endearments from “saukerl” to “saumensch.” Zusak also reveals the uncanny understanding and insight of a child that adults often overlook, such as the simple comment made by Rudy’s brother Kurt in regards to the fallen dominoes looking like dead bodies. Zusak captures this in each of his young characters, creating children with indomitable spirits that observe and fight back in their own way with the rest of the adult world.

The book is one of those tools Liesel uses to fight back with, and it is used as a motif throughout the novel, highlighting the power of words. In addition to using words for defiance, Liesel also uses them as a shelter for herself and others, especially when she reads to Max during his sickness or to the rest of Himmel Street while in the basement during the bomb raids. Significantly, Max also revitalizes the power of words for good, inscribing his story onto the painted-over pages of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, which is just one example of the remarkable use of symbolism employed within The Book Thief.

While I wish to find fault with Death’s early spoiler in the novel, which forecasts Himmel Street’s heart-wrenching destruction, I cannot manage it. Death was made even more relateable with this addition of a human fallacy and I was no less enthralled by what I read despite knowing how it would end. I still followed each character’s timeline, almost desperately so, mentally exhausted by the emotional attachment I had developed for them. So true-to-life, these characters literally breath on the pages — Death’s preparation was not enough.

A poignant read that is devastatingly brilliant and absorbing from start to finish, Zusak reveals a World War II Germany that is rarely touched upon. And, just like Death, we, the readers, are haunted by these humans Zusak has introduced us to. Liesel, Rudy, Hans … they are the types of characters that resonate and are well worth carrying around long after the last page is turned.

I am haunted by humans quote from The Book Thief with Death and Liesel holding hands

5 out 5 book thumbs up

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The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, published in Canada by Knopf, © 2005

Available at Random House of Canada, Amazon, Indigo, and independent bookstores.

Life after loss: A review of Wake by Anna Hope

Wake“Wake: 1) Emerge or cause to emerge from sleep. 2) Ritual for the dead. 3) Consequences or aftermath”

Wake by Anna Hope

London, post World War I, 1920. Three women, each marred by her own disparate loss, try to come to terms with what life after war really means.

Always a fan of historical fiction, I was immediately drawn to this book. On first impression, Wake‘s cover gives one the illusion that this book is a typical war love story. Wrong. Hope’s richly enthralling story is so much more than that, as it explores the complicated layers of human grief, casting a very real and honest light. The three women of the novel are all from different walks of life with different stories. Hettie is a young dance instructress at the Palais. Ready to start living again (she has lost her father to the Spanish flu and her brother to shell shock), Hettie can’t understand why the rest of London won’t move on with her. It is not until she meets a wealthy yet strange young man at an underground dance club that her eyes truly open to the often inconsolable scars left by the chaos and destruction of war and that, perhaps, it isn’t a door so easily closed. Evelyn works at the Pensions Exchange coming into contact with thousands of men looking to claim benefits from mentally and physically debilitating wounds. Embittered by the loss of a lover, she has little empathy to offer them and looks to find comfort in the company of her brother. But her brother hasn’t been the same since his return from the front, and he may be just as lost as herself, if not more so. Finally, Ada is beset by visions of her son, convinced he is still alive without solid proof otherwise. As a result, she finds herself becoming further estranged from her husband.

Wake focuses on the emotional turmoil of these women’s lives while at the same time weaving in the journey of the Unknown Soldier, from his excavation in France to his arrival on Armistice Day to be entombed at Westminster Abbey. The brief interludes where the reader witnesses the body’s journey to London are stock full of symbolism, giving the reader a sense of the necessity for this healing act, to console and bring the people together again.

The book develops over a span of only five days, expertly braiding the women’s stories together, uniting them in a gradual revelation that is beautifully fulfilled by the end of the book, linking Evelyn’s brother to Ada’s son. Hope does fairly well in balancing her four interchanging plot lines. Evelyn and Ada are heartbreakingly, and sometimes brutally, real in grappling with their grief. Evelyn is not easy to love, and I often found myself put off by her abrupt manner and lack of sympathy for the plight of others, such as when a man in the office experiences “shell shock,” and she simply waits for the fit to pass without offering any sort of help. But that is also the point. Hope isn’t trying to make these characters one-dimensional or easy to love—they are complicated. Experiencing and dealing with loss is not an easy task and neither does it have one unanimous response, as we are all well aware of.

The one thing I find that Wake falls short on is its characterization of Hettie. Unfortunately, she is less compelling than Evelyn or Ada, possibly because of her disconnect with loss. I often found her falling into the role of a secondary character, especially after she meets Evelyn’s brother, Ed, who manages to “steal” the scene with his tortured mannerisms, plagued by memories of war. I definitely would have liked to see more of Hettie interacting with her own brother, which would have only helped to solidify the book’s predominant themes and allowed Hettie to have more of a voice. Aside from this slight lapse, Hope allows her characters to speak for themselves with engaging dialogue and indicative actions.

A brilliant debut, Wake is in the end well researched, vividly illustrating time and place for the reader. London is depicted as broken yet vibrant as people pick up the pieces and begin to allow themselves one dance or one fleeting smile. Hope offers no easy solutions in her book, but she does end with a hopeful promise of the human ability to “wake” in war’s aftermath and carry on.

I definitely recommend picking this book up. It has the potential to resonate with its readers and stay with them long after the last breath-taking sentence, which leaves you to your own conclusions of what will become of these true-to-life women.

5 out of 5 book thumbs up

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Review copy provided to me by McClelland & Stewart

Wake by Anna Hope, published in Canada by McClelland & Stewart,  © 2014

Available at McClelland & Stewart, Amazon, Indigo, and independent bookstores everywhere February 11, 2014.