BBT’s Best Books of 2015: Historical Novels

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 TruAllTrueNotALieInIte 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.

 

MarriageofOppositesIf 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 mytholoVanessa_Cover_Onegy 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?

BBT’s Best Books of 2015: Favorite YA Books

Molecules_CoverMy 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

 

Cover_AnnAngelAnother 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

 

PROBE INTO MEMORY: Find Me by Laura van den Berg

Find Me CoverFind Me by Laura van den Berg
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, February 2015

“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.

KILLING ME SOFTLY WITH JOKES: Bream Gives Me the Hiccups by Jesse Eisenberg

Bream Gives Me the Hiccups by Jesse Eisenberg
Grove Press, 256 pages
Release date: September 8, 2015

BreamHiccupsCoverYou 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.***

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A FAMILY SAGA’S CURSE: The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

Book_Speculations_CoverThe Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler
St Martin’s Press, June 2015, 352 pages.

“The book is a beautifully broken window with an obstructed view of what is killing us, and something is definitely killing us.”

First-time novelist Erika Swyler attracts her reader with dark tales about an 18th-century travelling circus that parallels a tension-filled, modern-day narrative in The Book of Speculation. The altering story lines—one from the past and one from the present—are intricately bound together like the pages of the two-hundred-year-old book bestowed upon librarian Simon Watson. An elderly, unknown bookseller sends Simon a hand-written book since he thinks it may shed light on Simon’s family history.

Peabody’s Portable Magic and Miracles is  water-damaged and therefore only offers fractures answers to a family’s cursed past. In it, Simon recognizes familiar tales, historical patterns, and parallel lives. It also alerts him to his alienated sister’s impending death. To break the book’s spell, and to save his sister, Simon must first unravel the family saga of his people. A saga that started in Peabody’s menagerie—involving an ancient Russian seer, a mute wild boy, and an ethereal mermaid—over two centuries ago.

Swyler will pull in readers who value plot and twists over character development. This novel, which hits American and Canadian bookstores next week, has hints of The Thirteenth Tale (Diane Setterfield) and The Museum of Extraordinary Things (Alice Hoffman). Still, The Book of Speculation lacks the detailed, believable characterization that made me fall in love with those two books. Best save Swyler’s book for a lazy, rainy day when you want to escape into a fun story without being consumed by it.

*Thanks to the publisher for sending me a galley of this novel in exchange for an honest review.*

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.*

SUMMER READING: A Trio of Tween Books for Boys and Girls

Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman (Henry Holt and Co., June 2015)

Ages 9+

BookScavenger_COVERWhen immersed in Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman, the reader embarks on a fun, bookish adventure with 13-year-old Emily and her new buddy James. Shortly after moving to San Francisco, her idol Garrison Griswold gets shot moments before the launch of his new city-wide, book-hunting game. With the first hidden book in their possession and a duo of tugs on their tails, Emily and James must crack ciphers and go sleuthing across the city. Their aim: finding out what treasure awaits them at the end of the game. A treasure so important it put a man’s life in jeopardy.

I enjoyed watching Emily develop a friendship with James. Having been on the move from state to state since she was a little girl, making lasting friendships proved to be difficult for her. Watching them gain each other’s trust and working together to solve the mystery was the best part of the story.

Highlights:
A character named Steve pops up (or should I say sticks out) in many scenes. He’s a cowlick on top the of James’ head. That’s right. A cowlick. My middle-grade daughter laughed each time the author managed to incorporate Steve into the story.

What to watch out for:
This 368-page book is jam-packed with long sentences, in addition to detailed instructions and graphics of ciphers, making it a less-than-ideal choice for a “read aloud” experience.

Talk To Me by Sonia Ellis (FastPencil Wavecrest, December 2014)

Ages 9+

TalktoMe_COVERTalk to Me by Sonia Ellis puts 14-year-old Sadina in the spotlight while she struggles to help her family out of a pickle. Her mother is falsely accused of embezzlement, and her little sister Maddie is the only person who can clear her mother’s name. But Maddie has selective mutism, which means she has extreme anxiety of speaking to anyone outside her family. She is unable to tell authorities what really happened on the night an intruder entered their home. Everything depends on Sadina and her friends’ ability to help Maddie voice the truth before their mother goes to prison.

Kids will be able to relate to Sadine’s self-doubt and need to fit in. When she feels unsure about what will happen to her family, she thinks, “What I’m not so sure about is where this path is heading. I’ve never thought of this before, that something I do or say today might be like choosing a train at the station. It might be one that runs east instead of west, so that much later when it reaches its destination I might step off and suddenly realize it’s not at all where I wanted to be.” The tension Sadine feels throughout the story is palpable.

Highlights: This novel is not only available in print, but also for free online and as an audiobook at www.throughmywindow.org. There are also activities for kids and support material for teachers available on this site.

What to watch out for: I wasn’t 100% sold on this book’s success at promoting computer science and engineering to young girls. I feel like that technology-based scenes were awkwardly and unrealistically incorporated into the story.

Joe All Alone by Joanna Nadin (Little Brown Readers, May 2015)

Ages 11+

Joe-All-Alone_COverWhen looking at the quirky cover image of Joanna Nadin’s latest novel Joe All Alone, readers may envision a comical story reminiscent of the movie Home Alone. That’s a false assumption since the harrowing story of 13-year-old Joe Holt is one of grim poverty, child neglect, and longing.

Joe’s alcoholic mother leaves him all alone, for several days, when she takes off with his mean stepfather for Spain. At first, Joe feels relief due to his newfound freedom, “as if there’s electricity instead of blood in [his] veins like a superhero.” But when food and money quickly run out, while he is laying low in his inner-city flat, his reality becomes bleak. Luckily, he meets his neighbour’s granddaughter, Asha, his “maybe-one-day girlfriend” whose goodness is “so bright [he] can’t see any of the crap that’s there or the stuff that should be but isn’t.” Having a friend on his side makes Joe feel alive, loved, and able to conquer the difficult measures he must take to survive.

Nadin gave a boy a believable, unforgettable voice. Joe is a lonely, vulnerable boy you will root for every step of the way. Although his story tugs at your heartstrings, it will also make the reader laugh and be hopeful until the very end.

Highlights: The author’s gorgeous lyrical expression and in-depth character development will make it impossible for you to stop turning the pages.

What to watch out for: Although this book is marketed for kids 9 years and older in the UK, I consider it more appropriate for kids 11 years of age and older. The author uses harsh language and sexual terms. The world she depicts is at times too cruel for younger readers.

*I’d like to thank the publishers who sent me galleys in exchange for honest reviews.*