Monday, April 27, 2015

Memory and Loss: Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

Elizabeth is Missing was released last year, but got a lot more fanfare and buzz in the UK than in North America, winning the Costa first novel prize and long listed for the Bailey Prize. It got some rave reviews but didn't seem to be as hot off the shelves in bookstores on this end of the pond. That said, the amazing success of The Girl on the Train, with its slowly revealed story from the perspective of the unreliable narrator, may give readers here another reason to take a look.

I highly recommend it, since this book is equal in merit and intricate story telling. Healey, only 30 years old, has produced a riveting multi level mystery that had me turning pages and rushing to it whenever I had a chance to read.

Our protagonist is Maud, an octogenarian pensioner, whose memory is quickly failing her. Her daughter, Helen, is growing frustrated by Maud's repeated questions and poor decisions that regularly put her danger.  Yet Maud does not realize the stress she causes others, her thoughts are barely coherent, a thought she has quickly vanishes before she understands its significance. Yet with all the fuzziness clouding her mind, Maud is sure of one thing...Elizabeth is missing. Maud's closest friend cannot be found. Her house is empty, her things have been removed and no one seems to take her concerns seriously, dismissing her as an absent minded senior who cannot remember where she lives, let alone the location of Elizabeth.

Flash back to Maud's late teenage years in post-WWII England, where she still lives with her family and where her beloved sister Sukey has disappeared from her husband's home. Sukey is suspected dead, but uncertainty pushes Maud to try to track her down and figure out where she could have disappeared to. With her family blaming Sukey's husband, who appears to desperately miss his missing wife, Maud does not know what to believe as she tries to comfort him with memories of Sukey's initial excitement when first meeting her future beau.

This is the parallel story that Emma Healey has brilliantly told in her first novel. Cleverly told with little crumbs of clues, the reader is taken on a thrilling journey as Maud tries to discover what has happened to Elizabeth and Sukey. Healy uses crisp language that slowly provides clarity to what has happened but also conveys the messy confusion of an elderly Maud as she tries to put together her thoughts and solve these two great mysteries that bookend her adult life.

Although I have no particular criticism, I also think Healey had room to explore things more. The relationship between Maud and her daughter is fascinating. You can feel the seething frustration that Helen has about her mother, and Maud mentions in passing that she may have failed in some respect as a mother. But the back story around this is never explored. I really would have liked Healey to have gone there and it would have provided a depth to the book and make it more than just a thriller but also a family drama.

Nonetheless this was a great read and I'd recommend it as a not to heavy read for folks looking for a good vacation or summer read.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Some Thoughts About Book Blogging and Book Podcasts

So being new to talking about books in a more formal setting and actually writing my thoughts down, I figure it will take a while to sound very intelligent so I am trying to write regularly on the blog but at the same time trying to take a bit more time to write my reviews. I just finished reading Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healy, which was brilliant and a must read for those who were drawn into the mystery of this year's hit The Girl on the Train. I'll get a full review up by the end of the week to give everyone a better flavour.

In the mean time I want to talk about Podcasts! I often get asked where I hear about books and I have many answers. I check out a few bloggers and listen to the occasional radio show (CBC's The Next Chapter is great!) but in the last four months I have taken to listening to book podcasts (which is when I think I crossed into the realm of obsessive), which are great places to hear intelligent discussions about books and also to hear the buzz about things coming out. So for those who are interested, I wanted to give my take on the Podcasts I have been listening to.

My favourite, and probably the one that has been around the longest and most influential, is Books on the Nightstand,  which is hosted by Anne Kingman and Michael Kindness, both of whom work for Random House but do this podcast as a personal project. This podcast is great for many reasons. One is the likability of the hosts, who come off not as bookish snobs but just people who love reading and managed to get the best jobs possible to satisfy this love. Another great thing about it is that they have very different tastes. Kingman is more into deep, emotional literary journeys, while Kindness has a greater interest in science fiction, graphic novels and quirky fiction. You get a nice range of book recommendations because of their distinct tastes. Anyways, each week they talk in depth about a particular reading issue, be it "why we read dark" or "fiction books within works of fiction", and while the structure is very loose and sometimes rambling, they manage to keep it quite engaging. 

The next podcast I started listening to was The Readers, which I frankly found difficult to get into at first. It is much less structured. While Books on the Nightstand follows a format of introduction - audiobook of the week - weekly topic - book recommendations, The Readers is just an hour long conversation between the two hosts. What was a draw is that the two hosts, Thomas Otto and Simon Savidge, are not book professionals per se (although Savidge has scored more book oriented gigs recently) but just pure book lovers who go through very smart, intense, sometimes testy discussions about novels they have loved, hated, or had neither here nor there feelings about. They also bring quite different perspectives to the show (with the American Otto being more adverse to newer stuff) and the British Savidge being up to date with the newest thing. Each show has a new theme (this week's was "how many chances do you give an author before giving up on them") and they are just a joy to listen to. You also get some more negative feelings expressed by the hosts than Books on the Nightstand, and although I don't always agree with their take it is nice to hear some bluntness about their feelings.

Another one that took me a while to get into was the weekly Book Riot. The Book Riot website has been around for several years and the hosts all seem to be professionally employed by it. And before talking about the podcast I have to say that the website is amazing. There are daily links to fun book stories, ebook deals of the day, and regular reviews about up coming novels. The show is definitely more than just reading though, with hosts that are much more attuned and interested in happenings in the publishing industry and this is a large part of the show's discussion. The hosts are all amazing book lovers and they offer strong recommendations, but it definitely has a different tone. One politically nice thing about the show is that they are very conscious of how publishing is so male dominated and they go out of their way to promote women and writers of colour. This has definitely made me think more about my own reading habits, and I have tried to increase my consumption of female writers in recent months as a result of some of the discussions on the show. One thing I find annoying is that peppered throughout the show are the sponsorship segments, where one host reads off the blurb about sponsor X or sponsor Y. I am less bothered by the sponsorship (because in the world of podcasting it's hard to support your shows otherwise) but Books on the Nightstand does it a bit better by only using the opening moments of the show to do their bit.

Lastly (but not last really) is one I more recently discovered called So Many Damn Books, hosted by two young reading enthusiasts who again just love reading. they have a particular fascination with the Tournament of Books, which is great. They get a regular stream of authors and critics to appear on the show and the discussion is a little less insider and a little more fandom but that is a nice break from the other shows. They also have some great theme shows (like one on Stephen King) which was great.

Anyways, there are a few others worth mentioning that I won't go into detail like The Bookrageous Podcast and Adventures with Words. I'd go check them out and see which you like best but hopefully I have given you some direction. 

Saturday, April 25, 2015

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

So this is a difficult review to put together. I feel like wanting people to read this novel and at the same time will be very cautious recommending it to people. This is a book that will make many top 10 lists and will likely contend for many awards, but it will also turn people off because at the end of the day it is a bleak tale that will leave readers emotionally drained.

As a warning, a major theme of this book is sexual abuse and it is a challenge for a reader to get through the torment that a history of sexual violation has done to the main protagonist. The pain Jude feels throughout his life and what it does to him, even while overcoming the pain to accomplish pretty eventful things, is hard to ingest. 

Despite the difficult subject matter, Yanagihara has really written in beautiful prose. It is a book I found difficult to put down at times and the depth and compassion she writes about the characters is really enthralling. You feel the pain and insecurities and struggles that they go through, despite being surrounded by each other's love. But you are also taken in by the inner beauty they all possess, that they try to show each other, even though they usually fail to properly do so. There is a sense of constant drowning but the light that also shines on this group of friends is so bright that it helps you get through the darker moments of this book.

This isn't a perfect novel though. There are believability issue in the plot and there are times the story loses steam, and unfortunately I found this most the case when Jude tells the horrible story that has made him who he is. That said, it emotional scope of the novel comes in waves and the concluding quarter is an devastating rush of emotion for the reader, and leaves us admiring the genius of this literary accomplishment but also with a sense of hush about talking about what we have just experienced. 

Yanagihara's style is clearly influenced by Donna Tart and in the first 100 pages you can draw parallel's to The Secret History. But while Tart aims to take readers on a journey that is joyous to read, Yanagihara has delved into much darker subject matters that leaves the reader feeling much more down about what they have just taken in.

One criticism I have heard in regards to this book is that the pain described is too outrageous and that the level of success Jude manages to have professionally is unbelievable. While I agree that some elements of unbelievability are present in A Little Life,  Yanagihara has responded, stating the following:

"Everything in this book is a little exaggerated: the horror, of course, but also the love. I wanted it to reach a level of truth by playing with the conventions of a fairy tale, and then veering those conventions off path. I wanted the experience of reading it to feel immersive by being slightly otherworldly, to not give the reader many contextual tethers to steady them."

So while some have identified this as a flaw, I don't necessarily see it as such and in many ways helps accomplish what Yanagihara intends. 

This is one of these books that will stick with me, whose characters I will think about for many years to come. It will stir at the pit of my belly for many months I can tell and hopefully when I think back I will mostly think about Jude and Willem looking deeply at each other and being happy, even if the happiness is fleeting.

An Introduction

So I am a person who goes through life phases, where I get super obsessed with things and try to learn and do as much related to my obsessions as possible. Whether this has been politics, music or reading, when something catches my eye I latch on.

Although I have always been a reader, but in recent years I have embraced the act of consuming literature and have varaciously read book after book. I also have been keen to recommend books to friends and families that are particularly special, started listening to as many book related podcasts as I can find time to, regularly peruse various book related websites, and most recently started a book club. Hence...obsession.

Anyways, I have decided to start this blog where I will review books and give recommendations to anyone who may be interested in hearing my thoughts about what to read. Not sure who will pay attention to my humble opinion but hopefully a few you of will like what I have to say, and maybe even pick something up I suggest.

All the best and hope you enjoy my readings.