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: ⭐⭐⭐⭐


My essay about being a 40-year-old intern

I’ve been on a hiatus from writing book reviews for several months, but I’m still reading and dissecting works. See, I’ve been focusing on reading essays and long reads. I switched gears by spending my free time writing, editing, and reworking essays—you know the drill. So, my book reviewing has been pushed to the side for now. For a while. Not forever.

GandMWhile I’ve had short works published in local literary magazines, I’ve never had anything published on a national scale—until now. I hope you’ll read my essay in today’s installment of Facts & Arguments in The Globe and Mail.

Shout out to the editor, Jane Gadd, for this opportunity and to Jori Bolton for the lovely illustration.

My Life in Books

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 StoneGrover

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

OwenMeanyCoverThe 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

MeTalkCoverMy 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

HarryPotterPhoenixMy 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

TheWorldBeforeUsCoverI 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 TheWorldBeforeUsBalloonspectacular 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!

On Needing a Teeny Tiny Break

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.

A VIP READING EXPERIENCE: Welcome to the Circus by Rhonda Douglas

Circus_Cover Welcome to the Circus by Rhonda Douglas Freehand Books May 2015, 196 pages 

Reading Rhonda Douglas’ collection of short stories Welcome to the Circus is a VIP experience at a series a of intimate performances: the live fantasy shows in the family-run Porn Emporium, the execution of a famous exotic dancer during WWI, and the confessional of anger-prone God. Sharp, dark humour livened up the dialogue. Lush, poetic phrases dotted the narrative. Always was I surprised by the strange and alluring stories crafted by Douglas.

The standouts? My favorite was “Cancer Oratio” whose different vignettes take the form of a musical composition while the characters come to terms with the fate of their dying friend. And, despite being distracted by several typos in the French text, I loved “Nous and René Levesque”, the story that landed Douglas on 2014 CBC Short Story Prize longlist. It’s a fresh take on different point of views concerning a possible “séparation” of Quebec in years gone by. Although every story is unique in topic and form, each has a lot of heart and memorable characters. I look forward to reading other original, weird, and fiercely smart stories from this author.

*I’d like to thank Freehand Books for sending me a copy of this book.*


AlixHawleyCover   Alix Hawley just won the 2015 First Novel Award for  All True Not a Lie in It. It examines the life and trials of Daniel Boone in a new light. And it’s simply wonderful. Congrats to the author! Read my review to learn a little bit more about the book. Rush to your bookstore or library and read it. You’ll be happy you did.

DARKNESS IN THE CITY OF ANGELS: Sweet Nothing by Richard Lange


Sweet Nothing: Stories
Mulholland Books, February 2015
272 pages

In Richard Lange’s new book Sweet Nothing, the reader gets a taste of the less-than-glamorous side of life in Los Angeles, California. This book’s marketed as a collection of thriller short stories, but I don’t think it’s the right label. Lange’s previous book—Angel Baby—was a fast-paced novel of that genre. True, you’ll fly through these tension-filled stories, but not because they are suspenseful thrillers. This collection brings together raw, compelling narratives I’d peg as literary fiction.

In “Instinctive Drowning Response,” a junkie mourns the death of his girlfriend Maryrose. He looks back at their chaotic life as heroin addicts.  He blames himself, so “when he finally pops to the surface on a bright fall morning when  the tree shadows look like claws grabbing at the sidewalk” he is wretched and thinks, “I can’t come meet you there ever again.” It’s a story filled with grief and guilt with a recurring phrase that jabs under your skin, over and over again.

Blanca witnesses the murder of a toddler by a gang member in “Baby Killer”. She is too scared to report him. After all, when “it comes to the gangs, you take care of yours and let others take care of theirs.” But she can’t stop thinking about it. On top of that, she has problems controlling her uninhibited, disrespectful granddaughter. Something has to give when the nights get hotter and visions of the toddler flash in the darkness.

There are other compelling the stories involving a father-son duo on a rescue mission, an ex-con trying to rebuild his life, and a recovering addict with a night job and a 450-pound roommate. I enjoyed how the vibrant imagery contrasted the dark, yearning undercurrent coursing through these stories. Richard Lange has a knack for creating a growing sense of tension and urgency that keeps you turning pages. At times, his style call to mind that of John Cheever or Joyce Carol Oates. I’d love to read more literary fiction by this perceptive writer.

*I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review.*