Tuesday, June 23, 2020

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

I partly turned to this book to fulfil my reading challenge category of a dystopian or utopian book and partly because I have read all of the Hunger Games books so was curious about the prequel.

I must say I did enjoy this book though I didn't love it - while Collins' writing is very strong and approachable, I think I preferred the other books in the series. My biggest disappointment was the ending - it was almost as if when the author got to the last 20 pages or so she felt pressured to rush to the end.  Everything just seemed to take a turn way too quickly - though ultimately the turn they took was not a surprise to readers of the whole series.

This book goes back 64 years from the original Hunger Games books to examine the early life of Coriolanus Snow, who was the villain in Katniss Everdeen's world. Snow's illustrious family, which now consists of only his grandmother and his cousin, has fallen on hard times as a result of the war with the districts. Snow is obsessed with regaining their former wealth and grandeur and hopes to do so by being a mentor to a tribute in the annual hunger games.

He is somewhat disappointed when he is paired with a long shot - the girl tribute from District 12, Lucy Gray. However, her sense of style wins him over and the two must work together to give her a chance to survive. Snow does everything possible to make it happen which captures the attention of the extremely weird head games master, Dr. Gaul.  She eventually figures prominently in his future.

Snow's competitive personality is contrasted with that of his classmate, Sejanus Plinth, who is empathetic and horrified by the hunger games events.

I don't want to give away the main plot which of course centres around what happens in the Hunger Games arena.  Suffice it to say there is action, mayhem, murder, blood and gore and ultimately a winner.  The outcome for Snow is not necessarily what he expected either.  

The book does provide a vivid picture of the implications of abuse of power and control, particularly on how it can mold young minds.

If you liked the rest of the series it's worth trying this one.

Big Summer by Jennifer Weiner

I always eagerly anticipate my annual Jennifer Weiner fix, and while I didn't like this as much as last year's Mrs. Everything which I thought was probably her best, this was still a really enjoyable read.  It was part romance, part mystery and all round easy entertainment.  I finished it in the course of a day.

The novel is narrated by Daphne who is a plus-size Instagram influencer and part time babysitter.  For middle and high school Daphne attended a prestigious private school on scholarship because her father was a teacher.  There she befriends Drue - a beautiful but very mean rich girl.  Although Drue constantly takes advantage of her, Daphne can't resist the allure of being in her circle and is constantly drawn back in despite the warnings of one of their mutual friends (who is now Daphne's roommate).

This toxic relationship lasts until Daphne's sophomore year at college when she and Drue fight in dramatic style.  The altercation is filmed and launches Daphne's influencer career - she also decides to make peace with her body weight which gives her a huge boost in confidence.

Six years later Drue walks back into Daphne's life and asks her to be her maid of honour at her high profile society wedding. Again going against her roommates advice, Daphne is sucked in and agrees. She feels she now has the confidence to protect herself from being used.  She also makes it into an opportunity by agreeing to wear clothes designed by an online designer and to post about her experiences at the wedding.

The night before the wedding everyone heads to rented mansions in Cape Cod for the festivities.  There Daphne meets a mystery man, Nick, who she fears is too good to be true.  Even more surprising events take place - which I won't give away.

The remainder of the books surrounds Daphne's efforts to solve the mystery of the various happenings in Cape Cod.  It then turns into more of a mystery/adventure story and the romance moves to the back burner though does not disappear.  I would say my biggest criticism is that I couldn't quite believe how Daphne made the leaps in logic necessary to solve the mystery.  Although, admittedly because I read the book quickly, maybe I missed some of the connections. Despite that, I really enjoyed the story.

I also want to point out a couple of side stories which I really enjoyed.  Daphne's relationship with her parents, especially her father, was enviable.  I loved how they supported her unconditionally and particularly enjoyed her weekly restaurant adventures with her father. I also liked how Weiner wove in Daphne's experiences when she was child and her grandmother spent the summer with her and put her on a forced diet.  It was a great illustration of the lasting impact of early body image criticism.

For me this is a must read - but I again caveat that with the fact that I love anything Weiner writes.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Another Two Months in Quarantine - Lots of Books!

Because I have had so much time to read, I've actually read a ton of books, but haven't made the time to write about them.  Just so I can keep on top of this, I wanted to post, but you might find my reviews are a little shorter than usual.

Celestial Bodies by Jukhah Harithi

This was a very interesting book by an Omani author (in fact the first female Omani author to be translated into English). It looks at the lives of three sisters who have grown up in a traditional family that gets caught up in a wave of modernization that hits to country. In fact, the older generations of the family were slave owners (and slaves) while the younger ones strain against the rules imposed by religion and tradition, especially when it comes to accepting arranged marriages.

The narrative jumps around in time and place and, at times, is a bit hard to follow.  The family tree at the beginning of the book was an essential reference - I had to look back at it constantly.  The matriarch of the family is Salima, who survived a difficult childhood and now clings to the wealth and stability she's earned.  Her husband, Azzan, is more of a dreamer and drawn to the moon goddess (it's frankly a bit unclear if he's actually having an affair or merely spends time in nature away from his family).

The family's three surviving daughters are Mayya, who accepts an arranged marriage to Abdallah (who truly seems to love his wife, though she doesn't necessarily see it).  The narrative also explores their three children - London, a modern woman who is fiercely independent though not untouched by men who want to keep her in her place; Salim, an irresponsible young man; and Muhammed who has special needs.

The second daughter of Salima and Azzan is Asma who is obsessed with books, but ultimately accepts an arranged marriage too.  Finally, there is Khawla, the youngest and most beautiful.  She promised to marry a cousin when she was very young but he emigrated to North America.  She patiently waits for him to return - which he eventually does, but the reunion is not exactly what she expected.

The other characters in the book are slaves such as Zarifa - while not officially a member of the family she has been intricately involved in the family's history.

The narrative weaves together the lives of the characters to give us a very vivid picture of an old village being dragged into modern times.  But the drama is not all political - there is murder and intrigue in the family's personal history too.

The book takes time and attention, but is a worthwhile read.

The Shape of Family by Shilpi Somaya Gowda

This was a really interesting read about family, and how everything can fall apart in an instant when tragedy strikes. The Olanders appear to be an ideal, global family living in suburban California.  Jaya is the highly cultured daughter of an Indian diplomat who has lived all over the world. Keith is an ambitious banker, but came from humble beginnings in working class Philadelphia.  They meet while Keith is on a business trip in London, fall in love, marry and move to the US.  There they have two seemingly perfect children - Karina, now a teenager and Prem, the baby, now 8 years old, and doted upon by his parents and sister.

When tragedy strikes, the family begins to fall apart and we see how each of the family members moves in their separate ways.  The chapters are narrated by each of the family members in turn and cover about a decade.  Pref's chapters are merely observations of the rest of the family, but we see how Karina first thrives at university then falls in with the wrong crowd, Keith takes a chance on his job that doesn't go his way, and Jaya turns to a religious guru for guidance.

I don't want to give much more of the plot away as there are some surprising turns.  But I recommend this one if you like books about family dynamics.

Last Stop Auschwitz: My Story of Survival from within the Camp by Eddy de Wind

This is a true account by a survivor of Auschwitz and is as heavy as it sounds. Eddy de Wind was a doctor who worked at the Westerbork transit camp in the Netherlands. His mother had been taken to this camp by the Nazis, but Eddy was assured by the Jewish Council that she would be freed in return for his labour at the camp. He later found out that she had already been deported to Auschwitz.

While working at the camp, Eddy falls in love with and marries Friedel.  About a year later they are both deported to Auschwitz. Upon arrival they were immediately separated though, among the luckier ones since they were not immediately exterminated. Eddy was forced to work as a medical assistant in one barrack while Friedel became a subject of Nazi medical experimentation in another barrack.

This diary was actually written by Eddy while at the camp - in the weeks leading up to the liberation by the Red Army. He gives detailed accounts of his work, the maltreatment of prisoners, his continuous efforts to communicate with Friedel and his hope that they (and their love) will survive.  He also gives an account of what happened upon liberation.

While none of the content is particularly surprising to those who know anything about Auschwitz, it is nonetheless interesting to read a first hand account.

Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

This is not at all the type of book I would normally pick up, but I needed to read something for the library reading challenge that was based on a fairy tale, myth or legend.  This one caught my eye while browsing in a New York City bookstore (when that was still an acceptable activity...). This is based upon Mexican folklore.

Here, Casiopea Tun and her mother are treated horribly by their more wealthy relations who never approved of Casiopea's father. Casiopea essentially serves as her grandfather's maid and is constantly taunted and abused by an older cousin, Martin. In a minor act of rebellion Casiopea opens a forbidden chest in her grandfather's bedroom where she finds what, on first glance, appear to be merely bones. In fact, she has freed the injured and imprisoned Mayan death god, Hun-Kame.

For the rest of the book Casiopea is taken on wild adventures through Mexico and into the US by Hun-Kame.  She is pursued by Martin who is enlisted by Hun-Kame's evil twin.

While the skilled prose and exciting narrative made this a fairly easy read, I'm not sure I would turn to this kind of book again without the prompting of a reading challenge or otherwise.  I prefer books more grounded in reality.

Angry Queer Somali Boy: A Complicated Memoir by Mohamed Abdulkarim Ali

This is quite an interesting memoir which is actually written while the author is living in a homeless shelter in Toronto.  As a young boy, he is taken from his mother by his father, first to the middle east and then sent with his step-mother and step siblings to the Netherlands.

Ali is treated terribly by his step-family - and his father only makes brief and unhelpful appearances in his life.  Despite that, in the Netherlands as a child and young teenager he does make some friends despite moving around frequently.

Eventually, however, the family makes its way to Canada.  There Ali has a harder time fitting in and turns to partying and drugs to escape his difficult family life.  This leads to an inability to excel in school or hold down a job and, eventually, the homeless shelter.

The mere fact Ali was able to write this book - which is well written - shows his strength and resilience.  It also shows how a child with such promise can be broken by abuse, isolation and racism.  Hopefully, this book has served as a turning point for Ali as he definitely has what it takes to live his best life.

No One is too Small to Make a Difference by Greta Thunberg

This one was also for my library challenge - a book about climate change. It is a collection of speeches by the teenaged climate change activist.  They are somewhat repetitive - though I suppose that's not surprising given they were speeches to different groups but intended to deliver the same message.  Again, not something I would normally read as I think it's easier to pick up her message using social media, but it was a quick read if the topic is of interest to you.

Chasing Painted Horses by Drew Hayden Taylor

This was a really interesting book, and very easy to read. Siblings Ralph and Shelley and Ralph's friend William are living on an indigenous reserve in Ontario.  When they are pre-teens they befriend Danielle, an odd girl on the reserve who has a tragic family history and doesn't seem to have any friends or family support now.

When Ralph and Shelley's mother gets the idea to have local children pain pictures on a kitchen wall Danielle astounds everyone with her rendition of a magical horse.  She repeats the magic more than once, but then her abusive family whisks her away to Toronto and the children never see her again.

Years later, while working as a police officer in Toronto, Ralph comes across a graffiti mural that so closely resembles those childhood horses that he's convinced it must have been drawn by Danielle. He tries to enlist the help of a homeless man to track down the artist, but is not successful.

The narrative also tells us a bit about the adult lives of Ralph, Shelley and William.  While there's not a lot of heavy action, I recommend the book for those who are still interested in coming of age stories with a twist.

The Hate U Give by K.J. Apart

I chose this book for my young adult reading challenge category even before this topic came roaring back into the news with recent events.

Starr Carter lives in a poor black neighbourhood, but when a childhood friend is killed in a drive-by shooting she and her siblings are sent to a fancy, mainly white private school.  She is skillfully balancing both lives until she is in a car when another of her lifelong friends is shot - this time by police.

At first, amongst her school friends, Starr tries to deny knowing the victim, but she eventually realizes if she doesn't speak up the world will only see the skewed version of her friend being offered up by the police and the media. She realizes she must speak up even if it's putting her family in some danger as violence emerges in the wake of the shooting and a drug lord who her friend had ties to sets his sights on Starr.

This should be a must read for everyone in the current environment of police shooting unarmed, black youths.

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman

This was quite a fun book in the midst of all the heavier reading I've been doing (see above...).  Nina Hill is the consummate introvert - she works in a book store and is happiest reading at home with her cat or participating in trivia challenges with her close friends.

But two unexpected events force Nina out of her comfort zone.  First, the father she never knew dies and includes her in his will.  She is thus introduced to several of his subsequent wives, their children and grandchildren, giving her a huge family she never knew about.  While some of them are suspicious of her motives (which is weird since she didn't even know about her father and certainly didn't seek out his fortune), many are excited to meet her and happy to bring her into the family fold.  Even more surprising is how several of her half siblings share some of her personality quirks - as did her father apparently.

Second, her trivia nemesis, Tom takes an interest in her.  And despite her better judgment, she is interested in him too.  After several false starts Tom and Nina find they have more in common than trivia competitions.

Not deep, but fun and well written.

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

I hesitated to read this book given its mixed reception, but ultimately picked it up to satisfy my reading challenge category, a book about current events.  And I'm glad I read it - I really enjoyed it.  Now, I'm not sure it's all terribly realistic, but me that didn't detract from the interesting narrative.

Lydia lives with her husband and young son, Luca, in Acapulco at a time when the city is becoming more and more dangerous because of drug cartels. Despite that they have a happy life - Lydia runs a book store and her husband is a journalist. While working at the store Lydia develops a close friendship with Javier, a well read and charming customer.  Only months later does she discover he is the leader of a new drug cartel that has taken over the city.

When Lydia's husband writes an expose about Javier, she thinks it is balanced enough that Javier will accept it. But, for reasons she only learns much later, he is so incensed by the article that he shoots her whole extended family - only she and Luca hide and are able to survive. (I'm not giving anything away - this happens right at the start).

Lydia immediately knows she and Luca are in danger and they make a run for it trying to get to the US. The entire narrative surrounds their difficult escape - as they travel on the roofs of cargo trains to their destination, and then undergo a dangerous hike with a smuggler, we meet the honest migrants they befriend along the way; as well as the less honest ones (who are often in government or members of cartels, infiltrating to thwart the migration).

The book is well written, the drama is fast paced and the characters are multi-faceted. While I think some of Lydia's narrow escapes are a bit hard to believe, overall I enjoyed the book.

The Two Lives of Lydia Bird by Josie Silver

Frankly I found this book a bit too weird for my taste.  When Lydia's husband is killed in a car crash she is devastated and withdrawing from the world.  At the urging of her family she takes sleeping pills to help her cope.  Whenever she takes them, she dreams of a parallel world where her husband is still alive.  The lives of others are also altered in the parallel world (for example in the real world her sister has a healthy baby while in the alternate world she miscarries).

In the real world, Lydia eventually decides to travel abroad to spend more time in the alternate world.  But there she begins to come to terms with how things are in the real world so she returns to her regular life.

As I said, I just found this too strange, but if you like the idea, the book is well written, just not to my liking.

The Stationery Shop by Marjan Kamali

I quite enjoyed this book.  It is set both in the present day US and 1950s Tehran.

In 1953, 17 year old Roya meets an idealistic and politically active boy, Bahman, in a stationery shop.  Over books and stationery they fall in love and eventually become engaged.  The engagement is encouraged by Roya's family as well as Bahman's father.  But Bahman's mother, who suffers from mental illness, disapproves of the match as Roya's family is less well off than hers.

At one point Bahman disappears and Roya has no idea what has happened, though she knows he is alive as he sends her notes which she picks up in books at the stationery shop, with the assistance of the shop owner.  The last note says he wants to meet her at a particular square and they will immediately get married.  But Bahman doesn't show up.

Years later, Roya is married to someone else and discovers Bahman is alive and in a US nursing home.  She decides she must visit him to find out what happened on that fateful day.  Through narrative which moves back and forth in time we find out what happened too.  There are also some chapters even further back in time that tell us about the bookseller's early life which ends up being pertinent to the 1953 story.

The story is interesting and there are a lot of fascinating and likeable characters - both in Tehran and in the US (though there are some unlikeable characters too).  I definitely recommend this book.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I hadn't read this book before so when I saw it at a used book sale last fall I jumped on it.  Then I decided to read it for the "classic" category of my reading challenge.  And, boy you can see why it's a classic.  The language of the book is masterful.  And while magical realism is not my favourite, I still had trouble putting this book down. As an aside, I only learned in reading the afterword to this book that a it is responsible for introducing the concept of magical realism to English readers. The novel tells the story of 100 years in the fictional South American town of Macando.  In particular we see it through the lives of multiple generations of the Buendia family - one of the founding families.

Because many of the children are named after their parents and grandparents, the reference family tree at the beginning of the book was vital for me to keep track of everyone. I wouldn't say the story is confusing, I just sometimes had to remind myself which generation I was reading about as it did jump backwards and forwards a bit.

Through just one family, the author manages to touch on global issues like religion, politics, war, imperialism, science and invention and more. There is really no way for me to summarize what happened - it's just too much. All I can say is that if you're in the mood for a classic, and haven't already read it, this one is worth it.

Calm the F*ck Down by Sarah Knight

I picked this book up to fit the category of a book you found helpful.  And while I wouldn't describe the advice in this book as life changing, I did pick up a few tips for managing low level anxiety (particularly the type that keeps you up at night).

The author readily admits she is not an educated expert - she is rather someone who suffers from anxiety sharing strategies that have worked for her. This is not the book for you if you are struggling with serious anxiety - you should seek professional help instead. But if you just feel anxious sometimes you might get the odd helpful hint here.

I should note that the book is full of exercises - I didn't bother doing them - that's just not my thing.

Natalie Tan's Book of Luck and Fortune by Roselle Lim

This is another book that was just a little too weird for my taste.

When Natalie Tan's mother dies, she returns to San Francisco's Chinatown after many years of estrangement.  Against her mother's wishes she had left town to go to culinary school - where she flunked out.  She then spent several years floating from place to place, working in restaurants and never really developing any serious attachments.

She is originally resentful of her neighbours as she thought they left her all alone to deal with her mother who suffered from serious agoraphobia.  Instead she finds they were providing all kinds of behind the scenes support.  She also learns her mother has left her her late grandmother's restaurant and recipe book.

All sounds normal so far - but then Natalie decides that she has to use cooking as magic to address issues in people's lives.  And there is another whole weird bit involving her father which I won't reveal in case you want to read the book, but it was just too far fetched for me.

I don't really recommend this.  It did include many recipes which may or may not be legitimate - I skimmed over them so don't really know.

Truths I Never Told You by Kelly Rimmer

I'm not sure where I heard about this book, but it was a pleasant surprise. It takes place in alternating chapters in the present and in the late 1950s.

In the present, Beth Walsh's father is dying and is moved into a long term care facility.  Beth, mostly because she is suffering from postpartum depression and wants an escape from her infant son, offers to clean out the family home.  There, behind a locked attic door, she finds a hoarder's den that is uncharacteristic of her otherwise neat and organized father. More mysteriously she finds a series of notes that appear to be from her mother - each attached to an abstract painting that her father seems to have recently painted.

Beth and her three siblings had always been told their mother died in a car accident when they were toddlers, but the notes suggest something more sinister may have occurred. There father, now struggling with dementia, cannot tell them anything.

In alternating narratives from the perspective of Beth in the present day and her mother and aunt in the past, we are able to piece together what actually happened to her mother.  The children also learn that there is more to their father than they thought.

In addition to being an interesting family mystery, the book does an excellent job of addressing postpartum depression and the devastating effects of the lack of birth control and safe abortions in the 1950s.

I found this book to be really interesting, well researched and well written.