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In 2015, three novels of historical fiction stood out form the pack. Or should I say, the bookshelf. Their authors reimagined the loves and trials of prominent figures from the past. In each case, the reader gets to delve into the minds of the characters to find out what emotions and influences that set them on their paths. Warning: these books are so good, fiction may just become better than reality.
All True Not a Lie in It by Alix Hawley blew me away. It examines the life and trials of Daniel Boone in a fresh, new light. So many gorgeous passages. Heart-stopping narration. Don’t want to take my word for it? Well, it won the 2015 Amazon.ca First Novel award in May. This fall, it was longlisted for the prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize. Read my review, then check out the author’s blog for more info about her writing process and fun facts about Daniel Boone. Then, get your hands on the novel. If you get sad when you finish reading it, take solace in knowing that Hawley is working on the sequel as we speak.
If you’ve been following my blog, you may know that I love author Alice Hoffman‘s work. She delivers. Every. Time. It’s no surprise that her latest novel, The Marriage of Opposites, made my list of 2015’s best historical novels. It is the story of the Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro and his family. Inspired by Latin American literature, this multi-generational story is laced with bursts of passion and shades of magic realism. Oh, and the ending? It’s perfect.
The mythology of Virginia Woolf has been the subject of several films and books over the years. Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar can be added to that list under the heading “inventive point of view”. The epistolary novel is made up primarily of fictional journal entries by Virginia’s older sister, Vanessa. Under the suffocating shadow of her sister, Vanessa finds the strength to grow as an artist, a mother, and a lover. Reading her story through journals, letters, and postcards was an intimate, memorable experience. I read the book and wrote a review nearly a year ago, but still find myself thinking about the characters today.
What was your favourite historic novel of 2015?
My favorite YA novel of 2015—BY FAR—was We Are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen. It’s a story of two very different people—Stewart and Ashley—who must eventually join forces it they want to make their newly-meshed family work. The book’ll make you laugh out loud and sob aching sobs. I wrote a gushing review back in May claiming that with yet another great title under her belt, Susin Nielsen is quickly becoming the John Green of Canada. I still think that’s true. If you have young teens on your holiday gift list, grab this book (Full of feels!) for each of them. Girls and guys will like it. So will you!
Issues tackled: divorce, bullying, sexual harassment, homosexuality, mourning
Another great YA read was an engaging collection of short stories about teenage secrets. Things I’ll Never Say: Stories About Our Secret Selves was edited by Ann Angel—curator of fells, laughs, and ah-ha moments. These stories vary in style and genre, but each one shows us how the struggles of teens deeply impact their emotional lives. Read my review to learn about my three favourite stories. It’s a must-read collection for teens, teachers, and parents alike.
Issues tackled: hoarding, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted deseases, eating disorders, friendship
“The sickness” hits the Unites States leaving its victims covered in silvery scabs, bereft of their memories, and fated with an unavoidable death. 19-year-old Joy finds herself swept away to an isolated hospital along with others who have been exposed to the fast-spreading disease. Here, Joy becomes intimate with a widower, endeared by orphaned twin boys, and distracted by the mysterious pilgrims who stand vigil outside the hospital.
Unlike other dystopian novels (i.e. Children of Men, World War Z), this story is not rife with action or a rush to find a cure. In fact, most of the scientific elements fizzle away on a back burner. The protagonist has a lot of time on her hands. She gets lost in the entanglements of her memories and her imaginings. Joy’s fears, doubts, and transient lifestyle make her the ideal, unreliable first-person narrator. You feel as vulnerable and as unknowing as Joy.
Van den Berg uses poetic phrases and gorgeous water imagery that lulls you. Her words leave you aimlessly drifting along and waiting for meaning along with Joy. The story can be summed up by one of Joy’s powerful lines:
“I feel like my life is a tent someone has folded up and carried away.”
Being an orphan, Joy never had a permanent home or family life. She drifted from place to place, always finding herself lost—her future a dark blur. The language sets the mood and helps you delve into the psyche of a lonely woman in an unravelling world.
The second part of the book meanders into a new direction, possibly leaving you confused or unsatisfied. Other characters materialize along the way, but never long enough to leave their imprint on you. Like the memories of the afflicted, the relationships Joy forms with others come and go too quickly. The final scene is fitting, but may leave you with more questions than answers.
I recommend this book for readers who appreciate the intricacies of language, but not to those who want a tight plot and a clear resolution at the end of the novel.
Bream Gives Me the Hiccups by Jesse Eisenberg
Grove Press, 256 pages
Release date: September 8, 2015
You may remember Jesse Eisenberg’s breakout performance in the riveting 2005 film The Squid and the Whale. Or, perhaps his more popular role in The Social Network that landed him on the Best Actor nominee list in 2011. He’s clearly a talented actor who can deliver smart dialogue on cue. It’s no surprise that Eisenberg also has an inclination for creative writing pursuits. He’s published short stories in respected literary magazines (The New Yorker, McSweeney’s). Sounds like he could whip up a promising collection of short stories, right? That’s what I thought when I received my galley of Bream Gives Me the Hiccups (it hits American and Canadian bookstores on September 8th). I must admit, what he produced disappointed me.
The first story “Restaurant Reviews from a Privileged Nine-Year-Old” is a stellar narrative featuring a series of poignant vignettes written by a precocious boy with a believable, aching voice. Our insightful narrator shares moments of clarity like, “lies are for adults who are sad in their lives.” He comes to such realizations by spending a lot of time with his newly-divorced mother in restaurants. When his mother lies to him and to others, she “doesn’t just say things she doesn’t mean, she says the opposite of the things she does mean.” He’s a witness. He’s an accomplice. He’s a victim. He’s just a child who wants to be loved. I could’ve read an entire book comprised of such vignettes.
Unfortunately, the remaining stories do not measure up to that first one. Sure, Eisenberg alludes to historical events—like the Bosnian Genocide—and laces each page with acerbic humor. He’s clearly intelligent and funny. He’s also trying very hard to make the reader realize that he’s clever. And hip. And the master of satire. It becomes exasperating. The rest of the stories are nearly all delivered in dialogue forms. The narratives become redundant, so the appeal and the oomph are lost along the way. At one point, they deteriorate into a series of jokes with smart-alecky punch lines. Need I go on?
Perhaps the stories he will write in years to come will have more balance and depth. Perhaps I’m simply not the right audience (40-year-old mom) for Eisenberg’s style. So for now, I’ll just stick to watching Jesse Eisenberg on the big screen instead of cracking open his books.
*** Thank you to Grove Press for sending me a galley of this novel in exchange for an honest review.***
I’ve enjoyed reading other book bloggers’ posts in The Time and Place Book Tag. Bloggers write vignettes explaining the memories and places associated with reading particular books. In Chelsea’s post, she explains, “My life can be told in books, and it is one of the most special things about them.” So friends, here’s my life in books.
The Monster at the End of This Book by Jon Stone
My favorite book as a teeny, bespectacled girl featured Grover from Sesame Street. Although I was quite young, I remember my mother reading the story to me. A growing tension builds as Grover pleads with the reader not to turn the pages. There’s a “scary” monster at the end of the book, after all. My mother would pretend she was terrified of the page-turning, just like Grover, and I would laugh and turn each page defiantly. I still own a worn, cherished copy of the Monster book.
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
The first book I read by John Irving was A Prayer for Owen Meany. When I was in high school, I went on my first out-of-town day trip with my boyfriend. We left our tiny town, and we drove nearly two hours to reach a “much bigger” town with double-lane roads, a multi-screen cinema, and a chain bookstore. It rained during the ride. We listening to the single cassette of “Wish I Was Your Lover” over and over. I felt grown-up, so clearly I had to buy an “adult” book to mark the occasion. In the clearance bin at the Coles bookstore, I found a book with an armadillo on its cover. The inside flap revealed it was by the guy who also wrote The World According to Garp. I had seen and loved that weird R-Rated movie and figured this book would be just as strange and as adult-themed as Garp. Little did I know that I’d spend the following weekend tucked in my sister Joe’s basement bedroom (she was attending University at the time) and get lost in this story. I remember reading the ending so vividly. I was sprawled on Joe’s bed. I bawled for what felt like forever. I felt both overwhelmed and uplifted. It was the best thing I had read in all my 17 years. (It might still be the best novel I’ve read in all my 40 years. It’s in a tie at the top of my list with Jane Eyre).
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
My husband Brian gave me this collection of essays to read when we flew off to Prague to (secretly) get hitched. He had introduced me to Sedaris (and to This American Life). We listened to podcasts featuring the humourist reading to live audiences. I must admit I was too excited to read when we left Canada. So, I read the whole book during our return flight. I laughed out loud a few times. I cried a bit, too. These stories will forever be associated with Brian smiling at my side, fluffy white clouds, and my left hand sporting a new, sparkling ring.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J. K. Rowling
My sister, who taught grade 7 for over a decade, introduced me to the Harry Potter series. She lent me the first three books, and I read them over the span of a couple of weeks shortly before the fourth one was published. I couldn’t wait to read the fifth book, but I would have to wait a while for it to get published. Two years later, and a few days before it hit the bookstores, I had a pregnancy scare. I was four months pregnant and was put on strict bedrest for two weeks. This Harry Potter book helped me remain calm and entertained. I remember being thankful it was over 800 pages long. I spent much of my time reading it while sitting on my old plaid couch near the living room picture window. I didn’t lift a finger during this time. I read, read, and read while my baby got stronger. That December, my healthy daughter weighed 8.14 lbs at birth.
The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter
I read this gorgeous novel last year. I’d read it early in September during the early morning hours. I was determined to take advantage of the last days of summer by hanging out on the new, cedar deck my husband and father had built together. Reading. Drinking coffee. It was bliss. On one of these mornings, I looked up to see a dozen or more hot air balloons floating above me. I’d forgotten it was The Gatineau Hot Air Balloon Festival that weekend. The balloons often land all over our neighbourhood in parks and farmland. The sky dance was as spectacular as the book. The World Before Us became one of my two favorite reads of 2014 (the other being Sweetland by Michael Crummey).
If you participated in the Place and Time Tag, please share the link with me. I’d love to read your bookish stories. Happy reading!
Sometimes, you just have to keep those little piles of too-read books from accumulating in corners and crooks of your home. Books that were gifted. Books that you bought on a whim. Books you put aside, but desperately want to crack open. Books that were on inter-library-loan waiting lists for months. And months. And months. And are finally here. All. At. Once.
Lately, you need to read with abandon without sticky notes at the ready. Read without writing book reviews. Just because. You need to escape. Go on a reading binge. And binge, binge, binge. Just for a bit. For a couple of weeks.
Then, you’ll have your fill and miss writing reviews. Resurface. Refreshed. And be at the ready for those to-be-published galleys needing to be reviewed in August. All will be well. But for now, you’ll catch up. Chillax. After all, it’s summer.