BOOK REVIEW: America For Beginners by Leah Franqui

franquiI dare you not to get hooked in the first chapter of Leah Franqui‘s debut novel America for Beginners. You’re introduced to Pival, a recently widowed Bengali woman getting ready to trek across the United States in search of her son’s true fate. The estranged, gay son banished from the family by her dead husband—an angry man who failed to show Pival love or respect while he was still alive.

“Pival Sengupta was going to America to find her son or his lover. And to kill herself.”

Once I read those final sentences of Chapter One, I too was strapped in tightly for the ride.

Accompanying Pival are her guide Satya, an immigrant still green when it comes to the ways of Americans, and her female companion Rebecca, a Washington-born, aspiring actress. Much like Pival’s son, both Satya and Rebecca yearn for the American dream. While their definitions of what that dream means, and the obstacles they encounter seem to lay on opposing sides of a spectrum, both Millennials struggle for acceptance and success.

Their road trip isn’t jammed-packed with action like car breakdowns in the middle of nowhere or life-threatening wildlife encounters. What you’ll read, instead, is a story of three souls who learn to steer around each other’s emotions, needs and cultural differences. While exposition gets a tad long and repetitive at times, Franqui twines themes of homophobia, racism and patriarchal oppression into the narrative without being heavy-handed. Pival, Satya and Rebecca feel real. You’ll root for them regardless of their blunders.

As for how the story comes to an end? Both fitting and satisfying.

I’d like to thank William Morrow for sending me an advanced reader’s copy of the novel. Honest thoughts are my own. The novel hits American and Canadian bookstore shelves on July 24.

My rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐


BOOK REVIEW: Radiant Shimmering Light by Sarah Selecky


I loved Sarah Selecky’s Giller-nominated collecting of short stories, This Cake is for the Party. Each story tells us about a transformative moment in its main character’s life. Everyday, seemingly trivial observations give weight and heart to her words. I couldn’t wait to delve into her first novel—Radiant Shimmering Light—just-released in Canada. Surely, the novel would be more of the same, right?

Not so fast. When you start reading about Lilian, a struggling Etsy artist who sees auras of fur babies and gets reeled in by pyramid schemes, you may think you’ve encountered the latest Sophia Kinsella heroine. You’ll scratch your head, confused. But, you’ll keep reading because it’s uncomfortably funny. You may even recognize the grip social media has on Lilian. Her idolization of Instagrammers. Her constant checking for likes. Her obsession with branded colour palettes. Admit it—you’ve been there too.

Then Selecky takes the absurdity up a notch. The narrative gains momentum when Lilian reconnects with her guru/celebrity/pseudo cult leader cousin Eleven. Excited, and a tad star struck, she accepts to move from her tiny sublet in Toronto to a guest home in New York City. There she starts to work for Eleven in the Temple. She’ll take over creatives for a business selling pricey workshops and merch to women with a penchant for self-care and the divine feminine. Life seems to be rolling along better than ever for Lilian who thinks, “This is what work-life balance feels like! Everything is finally balanced in the proverbial pie chart of my life—work, family and friends, spirituality, money, health. I love being forty. I’ve never felt stronger, healthier, or more solvent.”

At that point I was expecting the beginning of the end. A traumatic unraveling. Instead, things slowed down and became repetitive. The story lost both its edge and my attention. Every new description of an aura—whether bright magenta, grey-blue and green, or butter yellow—became nauseating. I wanted more. More tension. A bigger, brighter (Yes, I just said that!) ending. But… maybe that’s just the point of the novel. Perhaps the ending, regardless of its bright whirl of shimmering auras, is meant to be diluted. Subdued. The novel is fun, but fell a bit short for me.

I’ll be interested to see how the novel is received, in coming weeks. Have you read this new novel? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment box below!

I’d like to thank Sarah’s publicist at HarperCollins Canada Ltd. for sending me a copy of the novel. Honest thoughts are my own.

My rating: ⭐⭐⭐


BOOK REVIEW: On the Up by Shilo Jones

on the upI just finished reading On The Up by Canadian writer Shilo Jones—a fast-paced, whirlwind of a book. It features three intersecting storylines of people, from different walks of life, with a common sense of desperation. All try—need—to take advantage of high rollers in Vancouver’s property market.

Clever bits echoed the dark humour of Douglas Coupland or Irvine Welsh—which I love. One-liners and unexpected chats with a pot-bellied pig made me laugh out loud. Love the setting and Canadianisms—I appreciate a poke at Stephen Harper any day.

Still, it took a while for me to get through this story. At times, the plot was so thick with chaos it led to confusion. The characters are extreme, making the messes they find themselves in amusing. On the flip side, the over-the-top characterization makes it difficult to care for them or their outcomes.

Jones is sure to find a cult following who’ll appreciate his bite and his unique view of the Vancouverite rat race.

My rating: ⭐⭐⭐

Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for sending me an advanced reader’s copy in exchange for an honest review. 



BOOK REVIEW: West by Carys Davies

WEST DaviesCarys Davies’ first novel, West, is a quick and gratifying read. At just over 150 pages long, the book reads like an olden-day tale. Her story flies through the seasons like a tumbleweed on a warm, gusty day.

Never does Davies drag out the story with flowery language or over-complicated plot. The author plucks each word, with purpose, as if from a dream. Never does the pace linger—it’s steadfast like the determination of Cy Bellman, a widower who seems to be on a fool’s errand. His quest: seeking to find the roaming, monstrous creatures whose massive and ancient bones were discovered in the wild, western frontier.

For Cy, the dizzying lure of the West keeps him moving farther away from home, from his daughter Bess.  For the Shawnee youth leading and hunting for Cy, while on his long journey, the West has a darker pull—an inevitable, poignant end to a way of life. For his people. For his family.

I definitely, whole-heartedly, recommend this read.

Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Thank you to Simon & Schuster Canada for providing me with an advanced reader’s copy in exchange for an honest book review.

BOOK REVIEW: When We Were Birds by Maria Mutch

When we were birdsI was thrilled to review the new book from Maria Mutch—best known for Know the Night, the memoir that landed her on the shortlist for Governor General’s Literary Awards 2014.

Why? Well, when an author’s debut work receives praise and accolades, or gets nominated for prestigious literary prizes, that author’s sophomore book is often a collection of her best short stories or essays—works that have helped the author get the notice and traction she deserves from the literary world. When We Were Birds is just that—a vibrant, innovative collection of stories that reveal the mastery and keen eye of the author.

Themes of predation and freedom (caged or wild, hunted or be hunted) are ever-present in Mutch’s stories. So is her infusion of lyrical language and wild, enchanting characters. Her visceral writing thrums with life and yearning. With violence and foreboding. With a bright, gorgeous intensity deserving of such a dazzling cover illustration.

This collection will appeal to both fans of magic realism, like that of Etgar Keret, and seekers of dark fairytales, like those twisted by Joyce Carol Oates. Grab a copy, out on May 24, 2018, and let your imagination run wild.

My rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Thank you to Simon & Schuster Canada for providing me with an advanced reader’s copy in exchange for an honest book review.

BOOK REVIEW: I Have Something to Tell You by Natalie Appleton

appleton_coverA few years ago, I discovered Natalie Appleton’s work while scrounging the New York Times’ Modern Love archives for essays on love. Her true story—about leaving her Canadian hometown, lost and full of doubt, for Thailand in search of her real self—didn’t just strike a chord. It roiled the marrow of my bones. So, when I discovered this story was part of a soon-to-be-released memoir, I Have Something to Tell You, I was excited. The months-long wait for it to hit the bookstores? Worth it.

The memoir starts with young Appleton living a comfortable life with a straightforward, tobacco-chewing guy. In a bungalow with fusty shag carpeting. In Medicine Hat, the hometown she had always planned on leaving. It wasn’t a bad life, but rather a life unfulfilled. In a string of gorgeous sentences, the author captures the feeling small-towners often experience about where they grew up:

“Hometowns, how they tug at us. With memories of hide-and-seek in scorched coulees, and kissing in dusty trucks after dark. With streets and faces as familiar as a mother’s breath. But it’s not the place we leave or long for. It’s how a town makes us feel. Like a child, loved. Like an old woman, rocking over boredom and regrets.”

Never too poetic, too flowery, her style doesn’t detract from the story. Instead, her use of punctuation and sentence structure creates a rhythm much like the ebb and flow of her emotions.

After a brief but powerful encounter with an old classmate (a.k.a. an old nemesis, a one-night adventure), Appleton becomes convinced she must leave her hometown. Her partner. Her cat. Her home on the wrong side of the tracks. She doesn’t want to get married to a man or a way of life that she’ll come to regret. This revelation and the weeks to follow are hard. The intimate, raw emotions of a twenty-something Natalie fill the first part of the memoir. Her turmoil and guilty are palpable—you’re along with her for the ride.

Eventually, she trades in her 15-year old car for a one-way plane ticket to Bangkok. There, she plans to teach English for a year. Naive about her new surroundings and without any teaching experience, the uncertainty of making it in this foreign country trails her every move:

“How is it we can lunge over a hump nearly the length of earth itself, and then stagger on a strip of sidewalk? Shouldn’t we be fearless after crossing oceans and continents and cultures? Maybe it’s the streets—the higher probability of stumbling, even on a small scale, often—that daunt us, halt us. And I guess it never is a lunge so much as a series of moments in the air, off solid ground.”

Here and there, Appleton throws in an anecdote or bits of the land’s history, that makes her storytelling richer. Gives us a taste of what it’s like to live in Thailand. She deftly uses imagery and symbolism to weave together stories, from different continents and timelines, into a larger, focused narrative about finding oneself and finding love.

I won’t go into detail of how she starts to feel at home in this strange place. But there’s a delicate, quiet transformation with each new milestone. When she befriends the neighborhood family who serves her spicy shrimp soup without shrimp in their restaurant. When she learns Thai thanks to lessons from a well-off student. When she fearlessly hitches rides with motorcycle taxi drivers. All that, and much more, you should read and discover on your own. Preferably while sipping a glass of French Merlot.

I Have Something to Tell You was published on January 22, 2018 by Ravenscrag Press.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

BOOK REVIEW: The Unforgotten by Laura Powell

the-unforgottenThe Unforgotten is a fitting title for Laura Powell ’s mystery with two timelines—one set in 1956 and the other about 50 years later—and whose characters are consumed by secrets. Secret feelings. Secret love affairs. Secret obsessions. Secret details about a slew of murders at the hand of the ‘Cornish Clever’ in the coastal English village of St. Steele. While these secrets many have remained buried for half a century, they were never forgotten.

Mary was but 15 years old during the summer of the killings, and she has felt the weight of the secrets surrounding the events most of her life. They affected her relationships then and in the present. When the story of the Cornish Cleaver resurfaces in the media, Mary is in her sixties. She starts to unravel. The advice of a landlady in a neighborhood pub hits close to home: “If I’ve learned one thing from spending half my life listening to people from behind this bar, it’s that lies are worse than cancer. Trust me. They eat you up and poison you, so you either let them rest for good or you cut them out.” And so, Mary starts a pursuit to rid herself of the secrets she’s been harbouring, for so long, and find out the truth once and for all.

For me, the pleasure in reading this story was not trying to figure out who the true culprit was (which was pleasurable, mind you), but seeing how guilt, fear, and love rule the characters’ decision-making. While the roiling tension in the final chapters keeps you reading until the final line, the palpable sentiments of Mary, Betty, and John are the true driving force of the story.

Thank you to Simon & Schuster Canada and Gallery Books for providing me with an advanced reader’s copy of The Unforgotten in exchange for an honest book review. Hardcopies hit Canadian and American bookshelves on February 6, 2018.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐