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For Caitlin on her 32nd birthday: Books to read in Hong Kong and Minnesota

My sister Caitlin turned 32 yesterday. In four days, she leaves for a solo trip to Hong Kong. It will be her last trip for a while. In a couple months, she’ll marry her American boyfriend and will be a Minnesotan housewife until she’s able to work. This is not the life I imagined for Cait, who up until a few years ago called herself a “freemale,” but “Uncle Tony” is good with my kids AND joins all my readalongs, so he’s worthy.

The hours of travel and coming months of desperate housewifedom mean that I must buy books for Cait’s birthday. But the upcoming move makes it impractical to buy physical books, so I’ve bought a couple Kindle gift cards and compiled these lists:

What to read in Hong Kong

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  • Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan: Satirizing the ultra-rich ABC (American Born Chinese) culture in the States, parts of this book are set in Hong Kong and it sounds like a perfect fluffy read for the airplane. Bet these guys don’t fly coach.
  • Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper by Fuchsia DunlopBased on this review, and because Cait is a sometime food blogger, and this is sub-titled “A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China.” Might help her get ready for some Chinese food that doesn’t include chicken balls.
  • The Piano Teacher by Janice Yee: Recommended by Doretta Lau (her own book. How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank The Sun looks pretty sweet,) The Piano Teacher is another novel about rich people in Hong Kong, but sounds quite different from Crazy Rich Asians. It’s got some historical flavour.

What to read in Minnesota

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  • The Group by Mary McCarthy: A tenuous connection to Minnesota, as the author only spent part of her childhood there, but as Canadians we’re used to claiming anyone we can, so. This is also supposed to be the inspiration for Sex and the City.
  • Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald: because I assume she’s read The Great Gatsby! (Right??)
  • Main Street by Sinclair Lewis: Lewis is the first American to win the Nobel Prize for literature, so I guess he must be okay. I admit I know nothing about him. This book is set in Minnesota and is about a woman who moves to another city for her man, so it might be of interest.

Bonus: What to read when you’re getting married

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  • Love Letters of the Angels of Death by Jennifer Quist (my review): I want everyone who’s getting married, or is married, to read this book. It made me think about my marriage and the concept of marriage and other stuff.
  • Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (my review): I make fun of Franzen often here on the blog, but this book is really good. It’s about ‘Murca and marriage and there’s a lengthy rant about the child free lifestyle that I know Cait will appreciate.
  • The Bride Stripped Bare by Anonymous: okay, the author’s been revealed, but my edition is by Anonymous. Take this as a “here is what you shouldn’t do” guide to marriage. Disturbing and racy and one of the odder books I’ve read.

We will all miss Auntie Cait in this house, and not just for the free babysitting. She accompanies me to book events and joins me in readalongs and has taught me a lot about vegan cooking, among many other things. I will never repay her for all the drives she’s given me nor all the Maid of Honouring or Baby Showering, but I hope we can keep up with food and books even if it’s through Skype.

Henry and Auntie Cait

Henry and Auntie Cait

Currently…

Adapted from Fourth Street Review and further inspired by A Slice of Brie:

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Making: Anything Chef at Home tells me to. Especially these biscuits. But especially these brownies, which won me second prize at a community bake-off.
Drinking: Store brand mint tea.
Reading: Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. I’m getting Bonjour Tristesse and The Great Gatsby vibes.
Coveting: Wolford Velvet de Luxe 66 Tights, after reading this article about the best tights. You get what you pay for.
Listening: Whatever’s playing on CBC Radio 2. I like the new Hozier song. I also like Hozier himself. Let’s not dwell on the fact that he was born in the 90s. Also this classical mix for at work.
Watching: Booktube. I’m looking forward to watching the Wolf Hall adaptation with Damien Lewis as Henry VIII. It’s like The Tudors meets The Forsyte Saga!
Smelling: Chicken broth simmering and cookies baking. I’m repressing some powerful emotions tonight.

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Wishing:  For time alone that doesn’t involve a grocery store or a cubicle.
Enjoying: Fires and hot chocolate. Winter arrived this weekend.
Loving: Getting back to blogging after a month off and jumping right into Novellas in November.
Needing: To figure out how to fit in my introvert-recharging-time. Work is very busy with meetings and presentations, which I find extremely draining. Home is, well, a two year old and a four year old who need constant supervision, assurance, guidance, and refereeing. I’ve taken to waking up at 5am to have some time alone.
Feeling: A bit scattered.
Wearing: Leggings as pants. Come at me, fashion people.snow

Wanting: To start writing in a journal. I’ve been trying, but it’s a tough habit to form.
BookmarkingThink pieces on book reviews, as I get ready to write my own.
Aiming: To find a balance between planning and doing, here on the blog, at work, at home. When it comes to things I’m most passionate about, I get stuck in the planning phase. When it comes to things I *have* to do, I just jump in, to get it over with. Neither extreme is working too well.

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Novellas in November 2014: Introduction

If you’ve been browsing round the bookish internet lately, you’ve probably heard a lot about what you should be reading in November:

Obviously these bloggers are all wrong. How can November be for anything other than Novellas? Alliteration doesn’t lie.

Last year, I had a blast reading classic and contemporary novellas all month. I even made a video. Maybe this year I’ll do one as a wrap up? It’s unlikely, now that I know what good book videos look like.

Anyway, on to my novellas!

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  1. Tumble Home by Amy Hempel: based on the review here. “Reading it or any of her work is the surest way I know, besides having/watching a baby, to make life separate into moments.” Okay. Let’s see.
  2. Santa Rosa by Wendy McGrath: local author, local setting, sequel published a week ago, and this month’s #yegbookclub pick. No brainer.
  3. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. My favourite novella last year was Bonjour Tristesse. This is another coming of age story set in France, and 19 pages in I’m already predicting 5 stars.
  4. Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore. For the title, obviously.
  5. Varamo by Cesar Aira. He seems to be the guy to read if you like novellas.
  6. Bartleby, the Scrivener by Herman Melville. I don’t know what it’s about, but the oft-quoted line “I would prefer not to” really speaks to me.
  7. Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving: it’s the current read on Classic Alice. I love Classic Alice even though none of these actors appear to be college age, and despite the fact that Alice and Andrew would have humped by episode 3 in real life. It’s like if Felicity was even more repressed. At least Alice doesn’t wear those awful sweaters.

This year The Wandering Bibliophile is joining in with two impressive towers of novellas. Perhaps the elusive originator of #NovNov will come out of hiding this month!

Please comment below with your novellas recommendations, reading plans, or favourite episodes of Classic Alice or Felicity. I’m going to have to think about that one.

Back from the DNF: The English Patient, A Wrinkle in Time, and The Sisters Brothers

DNF

DNF: abbreviation 1. Did Not Finish 2. The book blogger kiss of death

In Back from the DNF, I give previously DNF’d books a second chance, because sometimes, it’s not the book, it’s me. Maybe I read it too young. Maybe I read it while pregnant or postpartum (baby brain is real!) Maybe it just wasn’t the right time.

I made a list of books that didn’t get a fair shake, and will reread and review to see if anything’s changed. If you want to join me, feel free to steal the concept, title, and sweet banner.

My DNF List:

  • Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne: Pregnancy brain
  • Tinker Tailor Solider Spy by John LeCarre: Baby brain
  • The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje: Too young (22)
  • The House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubuois III: Too young (20)
  • Fifth Business by Robertson Davies: Too young (17)
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle: Too young (10)

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje is my bae. Did I say that right?

Michael Ondaatje is my bae. Did I say that right?


My official reason for DNFing The English Patient is “too young,” but at 22, that’s a bit of a stretch. I was an adult. I was living on my own and working at a real job. I was also single after five years of serial monogamy, and in my newfound freedom my maturity level plummeted. I was consumed by shopping, clubbing, and boys for a couple years. Thankfully this was before the advent of social media. I shudder to think of the bar-bathroom selfies that never were.

I tried to keep up appearances in my reading, though. I read a lot of DH Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, and Jane Austen around this time. I picked up The English Patient thinking it was a “serious” book in this vein, and it is serious, but it’s very different from those old-school classics. You can’t just plow through it and you can’t rely on your memory of other similar books because there aren’t any. I don’t know how to classify The English Patient – adventure, romance, a little magical realism, post-colonial literature, war literature, English, Canadian, Indian… I don’t know. On first read, I was overwhelmed and couldn’t follow the threads. I gave up a few chapters in and hurled it into my closet. This time, I was overwhelmed in a good way, and again hurled the book with some violence on the bathroom counter (don’t judge, it was my kids’ bathtime) because the ending hurt my heart so much.

At 22 I couldn’t process this story. I thought I knew lots about love and tragedy and thought of myself as very jaded, but of course I didn’t and I wasn’t. Thankfully I grew up enough in eleven years to appreciate this book.

Verdict: It was me. 

Edition I read in 1991. I find this whole cover unsettling.

Edition I read in 1991. I find this whole cover unsettling.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
I read this children’s classic as a child, so I can’t just say I was “too young.” At ten, I was starting to read adults books (there was no such thing as YA (thank god)) and I remember picking up A Wrinkle in Time and thinking, well, it’s a kid’s book but it’s for smart kids. I was very invested in my identify as a smart kid, so when I couldn’t wrap my brain around what was happening in this book, it was embarrassing. Shameful. I was also disappointed that I’d never get to read A Swiftly Tilting Planet because it’s a great title.

What I didn’t get as a kid is that Wrinkle is a Christian allegory (I didn’t get that about Chronicles of Narnia either. Wasn’t as smart as I thought.) But I got it this time. Oh lord did I get it. And okay, I’m not religious, but I’m okay with religious themes in fiction (see?) if it’s well written.This just isn’t. A very thin story, stilted dialog that contributes little to the plot, and an author banging us over the head with her philosophy: it’s Atlas Shrugged for kids. And don’t get me started on the ending. All I can do is quote Professor Frink: “The secret ingredient is… love?! Who’s been screwing with this thing?”

I will give L’Engle props for the creepy kids who bounce balls and jump rope in sync. That shit creeped me out today as much as it did 24 years ago.

The verdict: it’s the book.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

My 4 year old loves this cover. He knows what's up.

My 4 year old loves this cover. He knows what’s up.


Alright, I’m cheating a bit. When I tossed The Sisters Brothers aside, I knew I would pick it up a few weeks later for book club. But I did toss it aside. I got about 20 pages in and couldn’t see what the fuss was about. I’m currently 200 and some pages in on round two and loving it. I can’t account for the change of heart. There`s one particular line that made me roll my eyes so hard the first time I read it, and now stands as my favourite in the whole book so far: the main character imagines his poor, sick horses’s thoughts, as he’s whipping him, to be, “sad life, sad life.”

I don’t know if it was a full moon or I was suffering from a case of the Mondays or what, the first time round. Now all I can do is join the chorus: read this book. Immediately. If you don’t like it, take a break for a few weeks and try, try again.

The verdict: it was me.

Alright, you know the drill: tell me about your second chance books, or tell me which books you’re thinking of trying again.

Spat the Dummy by Ed Macdonald: An Interview with The Bible Pimp (review + author Q&A)

spat the dummy

My rating: 4/5 stars
Goodreads
Synopsis:

Spat Ryan has demons. They haunt him by day and share his drink at night. Raised in Montreal by a bagman for the Irish mob, Spat has fictionalized or ignored chunks of his life too painful to recall. A chance meeting with an old friend of his father’s in a bar exposes the dark secret they’ve both been harboring, the secret that has shaped and defined Spat’s tumultuous life. Newly divorced and out of control, his decision to tell all and release himself from the past unleashes a storm of change in both his internal and external life.

I usually put my disclaimers at the end of a review, but this is a special case. I did not receive a review copy of this book, and I’ve never met the author, but he is known to me for two important reasons. First, his brother married my mom’s sister. If “uncle-in-law” was a thing, he would be mine. Second, he is THE BIBLE PIMP:

Ed Macdonald as The Bible Pimp. via quickmeme.com

Ed Macdonald appears in Trailer Park Boys as The Bible Pimp. via quickmeme.com

The Bible Pimp was one of my favourite episodes of Trailer Park Boys, even before I knew about the family connection. It’s a hilarious episode, but it’s a little different because Ricky and Julian win. They expose The Bible Pimp as a scam artist, and get to watch someone else get hauled off to jail for once.  Julian was in love with the Bible Pimp’s accomplice, though, and as she’s taken away, she sneers at him, “Fuck you, you greasy trailer park boy.” His face falls, and it’s one of the sadder moments of the show. For just a moment, all the Freedom 35 stuff falls away. He knows he’ll never be anything but a trailer park boy. I think it’s significant that it’s one of the only (maybe THE only) times the phrase “trailer park boy” appears in the series.

Sorry to those who didn’t come here for in-depth analysis of Trailer Park Boys. I’m going somewhere with this. The theme of escaping the past, and of become something else, or something more, than you were born into, is part of Spat’s story. Read more

In my bed: September 2014

(Psst: contest winners are at the end of this post!)

After spending my last quarterly update explaining that I was NOT going to go on a break, despite being in a rut… I’m here to tell you I’m going on a break because I’m in a rut. Who saw that coming?

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For the rest of October, I’m taking a break from:

  • Social media: Twitter, no Facebook, no Instagram, no Goodreads. Within reason. If you send me a DM or whatever, I’ll go pick it up.
  • Posting here: Mostly. I have a review in-progress that I will finish because I’m really excited to share (Spat the Dummy be Ed Macdonald.)
  • Reading blogs: Except my very favourites. I unfollowed about 200 blogs (!!) on my WordPress reader yesterday *and it feels so good.*
  • Requesting/accepting review copies: self-explanatory.
  • Reviewing books: kind of hard when I won’t be posting here or on Goodreads.

In addition to being in a reading rut, I’ve been giving lots of thought to the purpose of reviews, the purpose of blogging, what I want to read and write… and I think I need some time away from the noise of blog-land to ponder. There are two posts in particular that really got me thinking, and I would encourage you to read them:

  • Do You Read Book Reviews? A Challenge and a Rant by James Reads Books: this one made me want to sign up for the review challenge immediately, but also made me stop and think about the nature of the book review, like, as a piece of creative writing, as literary criticism, and as content marketing.
  • Authenticity and Diversity in Literature by Love, Laughter and a Touch of Insanity: this one inspired me to do a sort of VIDA Count, but for ethnic as well as gender diversity. You’ll notice I keep careful track of what I read - it’s easy to do thanks to Goodreads- but I’ve never tracked what I review. It’s reviewing that gives us bloggers some modicum of power in the literary world; we don’t just vote with our wallets, we vote with our voices. We influence people. What we’re doing with that influence, however small, is important. Over three years and 57 reviews, here’s what I found:

So, I’ll be back next month. Here’s what you can expect when I get back:

  • Literary Events Recap: My social media break will be in effect with I meet Joseph Boyden on Oct. 23rd, so expect lots of pent-up fangirling when I’m back.
  • Novellas in November: My favourite blogging event of last year.  I’m already building up my list.
  • BookstravaganzaLast year I was cheering them on. This year I’m joining in! I have zero chance of winning but that’s okay.

But before I go… we have giveaway winners!

Here are the lucky winners from last week’s Literary Festival Giveaway! Winners, check your inboxes.

Winner of tickets to M.G. Vassanji at LitFest: Carolyn

Winner of tickets to event of your choice at STARFest: Riverboat38 (if that is your real name…)

Winner of tickets to Joyce Carol Oates at Festival of Ideas: Natalie of Wandering Bibliophile

Thank you everyone for entering and reading and, as they say, I’ll be gone till November.

Anyone else remember how ubiquitous that song was, and notice how you never hear it these days? I also totally forgot Bob Dylan was in the video.

Fall Preview Part II: Three literary festivals and a giveaway

Fall Preview Part I was all about the books I’m excited to read. Today, we’re talking Edmonton literary festivals and giveaways.

Actually, three giveaways. Edmonton hosts three excellent literary festivals, and despite my grumbling about a lack of Word on the Street (but for real, Lethbridge and not Edmonton?) I am excited to get into festival season. Read on for my picks, and for your chance to win your way into three of my most-anticipated events!

LitFest

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I had a great time at my first LitFest last year and I’m super bummed that I can’t make it to any of these fine events. If I could, I would go to:

  • And Home Was Kariakoo (M.G. Vassanji) October 23, 7:30 p.m. at Stanley Milner Library. I am so sorry to miss this. I read The Magic of Saida last year and it was brilliant. Here’s my review in which I dub the author M.G. “Mother-effing Genius” Vassanji.
  • Me, My Selfie, and I October 23, 5:30 p.m. at Kids in the Hall Bistro. I went to this event last year and it was so fun! They’ve changed it up a bit this year and are including selfie lessons which I sorely need. My kids take better selfies than I do.
  • Headliner Naomi Klein was on The Colbert Report this week and you can see her October 20, 7:00 p.m. at the Winspear. She’s pretty feisty on Twitter, too:

LitFest is also running Words on the Square, in partnership with Edmonton Arts Council, bringing authors to Churchill Square at lunch time on Tuesdays to read and… well I’m not sure what else. I just have to run across the street to get there, so I’m in!

LITFEST GIVEAWAY: I have two tickets to the M.G. Vassanji event to give away! Just comment on this post and let me know you want the tickets. I may ask you to take my copy of The Magic of Saida and get it signed. If that’s cool with you.

STARFest

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I’m excited to attend the St. Albert Reader’s Festival for the very first time. I love that the focus is squarely on readers. Sometimes at literary events I feel like I’m the only one who’s not an author too. It’s weird.

  • Joseph Boyden: The Soul of an Author October 23, 7:00 p.m. at Arden Theatre, St. Albert. This is the reason I can’t attend the LitFest Vassanji event. How did two of my favourite CanLit authors end up appearing at the same exact time? Talk about #CanLitProblems! I’d already bought my tickets for Boyden and he probably would have won anyway, as I have a well-documented crush on him.
  • Yann Martel: The Power of Literature October 29, 7:00 p.m. at Arden Theatre. I enjoyed Life of Pi and hope to watch the movie one day; as soon as I get a spare couple of hours alone in the house (i.e. never.) Martel has done lots of other stuff since LoP and I need to catch up.
  • Padma Viswanathan: Loss, Identity and Faith October 19, 2:00 p.m. at Forsyth Hall. I’ve had Viswanathan’s The Toss of a Lemon sitting on my shelf for a few months now. Its time may be coming.

Boyden hitting us with some content marketing:

STARFEST GIVEAWAY: I have two tickets to the event of your choice to give away! Just comment and let me know which event you choose. Pick a back up if you want to see Boyden as it may sell out. Maybe reveal your own literary crush, too. 

Festival of Ideas

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When Margaret Atwood is the appetizer, can the main course compare? Atwood and Alanis were here last year as a pre-festival event. Joyce Carol Oates is like the crazier, American version of Atwood (on Twitter, anyway) and I must find out for myself what she’s really like. My picks:

  • Joyce Carol Oates November 23, 7:00 p.m. at the Winspear Centre ($30) for reasons stated above. I snagged We Were the Mulvaneys at a library sale and have had it recommended it me more than once.
  • Colm Toibin November 20, 8:00 p.m. at The Citadel ($24) because The Testament of Mary is brilliant. It earned a rare five-star review from me (obviously, everyone’s go-to metric) and showed me that brilliant novellas are not just found in the classics section.

There are more controversial tweets, yes, but to book bloggers, dissing Jane Austen is a throwdown:

FESTIVAL OF IDEAS GIVEAWAY: I have two tickets to Joyce Carol Oates to give away! Just comment and let me know you’re interested. Maybe tell me your favourite JCO book, or link to her craziest tweet.

Did you catch all three giveaways in this post?

All you have to do is comment on this post and let me know which pairs of tickets you’re interested in:

  • M.G. Vassanji at LitFest (October 23)
  • Winner’s choice at STARFest (events in October and November)
  • Joyce Carol Oates at the Festival of Ideas (November 23)

You can say you’re interested in more than one. Go for all three if you like! I’ll do a random draw for each pair of tickets and announce the winners on Friday, October 3. No airfare or hotel, I’m afraid, so make sure you’ll actually be in town. I’m not going to make you subscribe to my blog, or follow me on Twitter, or share this post, to enter. You should definitely do all those things, though.

Thank you LitFest, STARFest, and Festival of Ideas for generously providing these prizes! I’d love to hear what you’re looking forward to this festival season, whether you’re in Edmonton or not.

Fear and Loathing in Suburbia: Between by Angie Abdou

between

My rating: 4/5 stars
Goodreads
Synopsis:

Vero and her husband Shane have moved out of the sweet suite above his parents’ garage and found themselves smack in the middle of adulthood―two kids, two cars, two jobs. They are not coping well. In response to their looming domestic breakdown, Vero and Shane get live-in help with their sons―a woman from the Philippines named Ligaya (which means happiness), whom the boys call LiLi. Vero justifies LiLi’s role in their home by insisting that she is part of their family, and she goes to great lengths in order to ease her conscience. But differences persist; Vero grapples with her overextended role as a mother and struggles to keep her marriage passionate, while LiLi silently bears the burden of a secret she left behind at home.

Before I even started Between, there was a lot at stake. A story about a working mom of two, written by a working mom of two, set in contemporary Canada, raises my expectations. I want to see myself. I want to learn something about myself. I don’t want to feel misrepresented. I wonder if brooding middle-aged men feel this way about all the stories about/by brooding middle-aged men? Don’t answer that.

The synopsis of Between put me in mind of I Don’t Know How She Does It by Allison Pearson, a bit of a groundbreaker in the “two kids, two cars, two jobs” domestic novel. Now, I read IDKHSDI when I was 22, and had no clue about marriage, children, or work, for that matter. And I hated it. I found the main character insufferable and didn ‘t relate to her at all. I still think she was ridiculous for trying to disguise store-bought cupcakes as homemade, to keep up with the supermoms at pre-school. It was a lot of that, and “getting ahead” at work, and it fell flat. I didn’t care.

Unlike Pearson’s upwardly-mobile heroine, Vero is not particularly ambitious. To be ambitious, she’d have to have a goal. It’s hard to be goal-oriented when you’re chasing 1 and 3 year old boys, working, and dealing with your spouse and their dysfunctional family. Vero is in survival mode. Now that, I get.

Vero’s marriage isn’t exactly failing, it’s just plodding along like marriages with young kids tend to do. Someone gives Vero advice to the effect that couples with children under three should not be allowed to divorce. You’re not in your right mind. You haven’t slept in years. If you’re not a good partner it’s probably because you don’t have anything left to give.

They’re both delirious from lack of sleep. His words come to Vero as if spoken underwater, wavy and weak, parts of them floating away. She can’t tell whether the problem is his voice or her ears.

Abdou makes it tough to like Vero and Shane. They’re an awful representation of modern Canadian life, all consumerism and self-imposed stress, and so lacking in self-awareness, it makes you (ok, me) wonder: am like that too? I was reminded of Blind Spot, in which I related to a character who was revealed to be kind of terrible.

Ligaya, on the other hand, is easier to like. She’s overcome a lot to get to Canada, and has a tragic secret. Her Canadian life is kind of like that of a teenager - when she’s not caring for Vero and Shane’s children, she’s holed up in her room, or giggling with her girlfriend and trying on makeup. But 27-year-old Ligaya is more grown up than 42-year-olds Vero and Shane.  She sees through their bullshit immediately.

The woman who meets Ligaya at the luggage carousel speaks no more of wealth than trees and rocks. She grabs at Ligaya’s hand, squeezes her fingers hard, and pulls Ligaya so close to her body that Ligaya hears herself squeak.

Wealth does not pull, Ligaya things. Money never needs.

Read more

The Dreaded Three (Point Five) Star Review: Blind Spot by Laurence Miall

blindspot

My rating: 3.5/5 stars
Goodreads
Synopsis:

When his parents’ car is hit by a train, Luke, a failed actor, returns to his Edmonton hometown to attend their funeral, wrap up their affairs, and prepare their house to be sold off. But while all others around him grieve, Luke remains detached, striking up a relationship with a woman in a neighbouring house… and stumbling across evidence that his mother may have engaged in a longstanding extramarital affair herself.

I overthink book ratings. I work in marketing, so I think about the implications of a three versus a four start review, particularly for the indie or small press author. I design consumer surveys, so I know how finicky rating scales are, and I know about the biases that creep into a rating, no matter how objective you think you are.

I have plenty of my own quirks: I’m stingy with my five-star ratings. I’m a fan of the half-star (damn you, Goodreads) and often change my mind after an initial rating. And a three star rating, like I’ve given Blind Spot? Ugh, I hate a three star rating. It’s so wishy-washy. It’s a safe, “I liked it, it didn’t blow me away, but I don’t hate it” kind of rating. And while those statements do apply to this novel, I’m also still thinking about it weeks later, which isn’t wishy washy at all.

I’ve been thinking about ratings lately. How I arrive at them, what they mean, and are they fair. Check out this blog post (and my comment) on Follies Past for more on that. In the meantime, here are some things I think about when rating a novel, and how Blind Spot stacked up.

 

1. The basics

This one’s pretty simple: does the book have enough going for it in terms of plot, character, and style to avoid a one-star rating? I can usually tell after the first chapter. I read a preview of Blind Spot‘s first chapter and was intrigued enough to add it to be TBR list (and to request a review copy.) It presents an Artful Dodger-and-Oliver type scenario, where the streetwise older kid gets the younger kid to do his dirty work, with predictably disastrous results. It’s set in 1990s Edmonton, a very familiar place and time for me to read about bad kids smoking and getting in trouble.

I felt an immediate and uncomfortable identification with Luke. I was doing the same kind of things, in 1990s Edmonton, just a few neighbourhoods over. Miall’s straightforward writing style makes it easy to get into the story, and it fits with Luke’s character; he also seems to be a very straightforward kid trying to fit in and be cool. When we jump to Luke in his early 30s, things aren’t as straightforward – he’s got his parent’s suspicious death to deal with, on top of a failing career and empty relationship.

 2. Emotional response

Five stars doesn’t mean a book is perfect; it’s usually tied to an emotional reaction on my part. I rated The Cat’s Table five stars, despite not liking an entire section of the book, and despite suspecting it wasn’t Ondaatje’s best work. I quite simply fell in love with a sentence and that was that.

Here’s where my rating for Blind Spot gets tricky. I didn’t laugh, cry, or hurl. I didn’t underline any sentences because they were beautiful. I did grow to hate Luke, after identifying with him in the beginning, though. I’m trying to figure out why I hate Luke so much. He is a major dick to his sister, indifferent to his nieces and nephews, and does that thing where you dump someone by cheating on them and waiting for them to find out and dump you. All bad, but maybe not deserving of fiery hate. I actually found myself speaking aloud at times: “Are you for real,” and “You are awful,” and several times just “ugh.”

Luke is not a sympathetic character that you’ll fall in love with. You won’t root for him. You won’t put him on your “Top Ten Fictional Characters I’d Like to Have Lunch With” list. He embodies white, upper middle class male privilege and is just so lacking in self-awareness. Oh, and he’s really really ridiculously good looking, too! I don’t know why that makes it worse, but it does!

So – I didn’t have the “this book changed my life” emotional response that earns 5 stars, but I definitely had a response.

3. Would I recommend it?

Having eliminated one and five star ratings, I think about whether I would recommend it (and to who) to figure out where it lays between two and four stars. In market research, we put a lot of stock in likelihood to recommend. It makes sense; it not only predicts what people like, but what they will share and advocate and create buzz for.

I would recommended Blind Spot, so I know I’m on the 3 or 4 stars side of things. I’m about to recommend it to the author of a novel called Spat the Dummy, which you will read about here soon, because it also features an “anti-hero” but the treatment is so different. In Spat, the hero does horrible things and is bent on self-destruction, but you feel for him. You want him to get better, to be better. In Blind Spot, Luke also seems determined to ruin himself. But I didn’t want Luke to win or get better. I wanted some comeuppance! So this is a “if you liked this, try this” type of recommendation too;  I just happened to read these books side by side but I was glad I did. It made me realize how unconventional this story really is. It’s easy to sympathise with an anti-hero you think you can fix. Luke seems beyond help, somehow.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t recommend Blind Spot to everyone. The writing is minimalist, so if you’re in the mood for poetic or lyrical, I wouldn’t start here.  If you can’t handle an unlikeable main character – definitely not. And I’m not sure if I would recommend this for a “light” read – it’s blurbed that way on the cover, but I didn’t find it that light. Easy to follow, yes, but I think of “light” reads as having some kind of happy ending, or redemption, or hope – the ending of Blind Spot is very, very bleak and left me unsatisfied.

4. Am I still thinking about it?

I was leaning towards three stars. In fact, I began this review by writing “3/5 stars.” But I’m adding the .5 because for a simple story and a simple character, there’s a lot to think about. Why is Luke the way he is? Is it something about his parents? His unsatisfied mother or his absent father? Is he an alcoholic? Mentally ill? A product of a shallow society? Why can’t this young, handsome, financially secure guy can’t get his shit together, and if he can’t, what hope is there for the rest of us?

I mentioned the unsatisfying ending. After finishing, I had all sorts of questions. I immediately flipped to the front of the book, looking for a clue, and in this passage, I found something. We’re back with bad-boy Joel and 11 year old Luke:

I still longed to have his unflinching confidence. No one had ever raised him; no one looked out for him. Joel looked out for himself.

I wanted that self-reliance.

Now, so many years later, I’ve arrived.

I no longer think of this particular three-star rating as wishy-washy. Maybe it’s ambivalent. As anyone who’s watched Girl, Interrupted as many times as I have knows, ambivalent doesn’t mean you don’t care, it means you’re torn between two things. I’m torn between hating of Luke and admiring the consistency and commitment Miall brought to his character, not for a second trying redeem him. I’m torn between wishing the ending had been more hopeful, more damning, more something, and realizing that it was not supposed to be satisfying. That isn’t the point.

ambivalent

What, you thought I’d get through a review without making a 90s pop culture reference?

So yeah, three stars: I liked it. I didn’t hate it. I didn’t blow me away. But I’m definitely going to watch for Miall’s next novel, because it just might.

Thank you to NeWest Press for the review copy! The book launch is tonight, Friday, September 5th, 7:00 p.m. at The Black Dog on Whyte. 

This is becoming a common addendum: Please go read Another Book Blog’s review, in which he took the best blog post title, and read his interview with Laurence Miall, in which he took all the good questions. *shakes fist*

How Not to Review Erotica: Book Lovers edited by Shawna Kenney

 

booklovers

My rating: 3/5 stars
Goodreads
Synopsis:

Forget poorly written prose and clichéd love scenes: Book Lovers answers the call for sexy literature with substance. This collection of toe-curling tales written by and for word-worshippers offers well-crafted fiction and creative nonfiction that connects literature to libido. From a Vonnegut-inspired tryst to an imaginary ménage à trois with Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, the book encompasses a veritable buffet of literary fantasies.

Whether they’re conjuring Junot Díaz between the sheets or dreaming of a modern-day enactment of Wuthering Heights—this time refusing Edgar in favor of lusty, bodice-ripping nights with Heathcliff—the stories in Book Lovers are designed for readers’ brains and bodies.

I’ve been avoiding this review for a while. Turns out, I don’t know how to review erotica unless it’s ridiculously terrible (see: Dragon Bound, Sleeping Beauty.) The terribleness allows me to get snarky. But let’s say the the writing is passable, or even good. Now what? I feel like anything I say is going to come across as either “I’m a huge prude and I’m judging anyone who is into this!” which is not necessarily true, or, “I totally rubbed one out while reading this!” which is also not necessarily true and is definitely not what I want Reading-in-Bed.com to mean to anyone. Read more

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