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Reading Year in Review: 2016

Another year is through and it’s time to look back on the books I read in 2016. In a surprising turn of events, I think I actually almost achieved my reading challenges for the year?! I guess that’s what happens when you set reasonable goals and actively work towards them throughout the year. Who knew?

50 Book Pledge

This is where I fell short this year: I only read 46 books (up from 43 in 2015), aided greatly by a late-year last-minute reread of A Series of Unfortunate Events. But since I improved on the previous year’s number, read more widely than in previous years, and continued to read non-book material at a high rate (when can I start counting novel-length fanfics as books? Serious question), I’m giving myself a pass. You can see what I read here. Did we read any of the same books? Let’s talk!

Reading Bingo

Penguin Random House Canada’s Reading Bingo card was less specific than last year’s CanLit version, and as a result I did pretty well: two lines filled and only seven squares missed! Some of the missed squares I’m tentative about: I almost certainly read a book with a character with a disability, but none came to mind when I was filling out the card, a sure sign that I need to step up my game in this arena. I’m also pretty sure I read a book from #weneeddiversebooks but a glance through their social media didn’t yield a match – another thing I can improve on next year. You can see which books applied to which squares here.

Books by Women

The goal here was to read 75% books by women in 2016. I didn’t do quite as well as I hoped, according to the numbers: only 57% if you count my speed reread of Lemony Snicket. If you take that series out, I’m at 73%. I was very mindful throughout the year of this goal so I’m disappointed I didn’t achieve it outright. However, I’ve really shifted to consuming a majority of female-created or women-run media (podcasts, websites, fanfics, books) and I’ve been conscious about finding more diverse voices to listen to other than just white men. I can do better with this goal next year.

The Great Tolkien Reread of 2016

It happened!!! I have a half-written post about it in my drafts but in the spring I managed to read all three Lord of the Rings books using a strict reading regimen of 100 pages per week – but somehow I managed to finish it in just eight! It was definitely less of a slog than I was expecting: there are a lot of small moments of humour, and the writing is less dense than I remembered. I didn’t manage to read the appendices (I needed to move on) but I really enjoyed it and my reread didn’t diminish my memories of the series.

Nonfiction Challenge

I read eight nonfiction books this year, mostly biographies/memoirs, up from six the previous year. While my New Year’s Resolutions kind of fizzled out (#relatable), I did manage to complete this goal for three topics – hockey, art and feminism. I read The Game by Ken Dryden and saw AHL, World Cup and NHL games; I read In Montmartre: Picasso, Matisse and The Birth of Modernist Art by Sue Roe, and saw many excellent works of art in Canadian, Danish and Parisian museums; and I read Feminist Fight Club by Jessica Bennett and joined a women in tech group at work. I’d like to note that while I didn’t fully meet this goal for all topics I set it for, I did grow and learn in each area, either by finding a supplemental source of information about the idea (eg. podcasts, online video) or doing the “practical” aspect of the topic (eg. attended opera performances). I am satisfied with my progress in this goal and am already planning which topics to tackle next year.

Top Books of the Year

Okay okay I know this is really what you wanted to know: with all those reading goals, which books did I actually enjoy the most?

  • Modern Lovers by Emma Straub (see my Mid-Year Reading Recap for my thoughts!)
  • What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi, for the strength of the leading story alone
  • Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, a wonderfully interwoven generational story of a family split between oceans
  • The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua (review coming soon!)

Ok, that’s a wrap on 2016! Let me know what your favourite book of the year was, and if you met your reading goals!

reviews

Mid-Year Reading Recap

2016 has reached its midpoint and I thought I’d pop in and chat about what I’ve been reading lately. I was in a bit of a slow period for reading books in the spring, but summer’s almost here and I’m picking up speed; there’s hope for my reading challenges yet. Here’s what I’ve been reading lately:

boringgirlsBoring Girls by Sara Taylor

How To Build A Girl meets The Basic Eight in this debut novel about Rachel, an angry teen who forms a metal band with her best friend Fern, and uses their success to take revenge on misogyny in the music industry to violent ends. This book has all the components I love in a book – bloodthirsty teens, mysterious best friends, feminism, murder – but it fell a little flat for me; Rachel was underdeveloped and the characters’ emotions and motivations were not as nuanced as I would have liked. Spectacular cover, though.

In Montmartre: Picasso, Matisse and the Birth of Modernist Art by Sue Roemontmartre

I picked up this book as a part of my 2016 Nonfiction Challenge, and it was a lovely change to delve into the mid-century art scene in Paris. Art history becomes accessible in this enjoyable portrait of the birth of modern art in Paris at the turn of the 20th century. I really liked how the author framed the artists’ famous works and stylistic breakthroughs by providing context for the political and cultural developments that influenced the modernist art movement, like telephones, cinemas, and industrialization, while also crafting an emotional narrative centring around the artists in Paris’ famous bohemian neighbourhood. The analyses of the artists’ major works is accessible and ties together the social and emotional influences highlighted by the author. I read this book as prep for a trip to Paris, where I planned to visit friends, eat pastries and see as much art as I could. This book really enhanced my experience of all the modernist art I saw.

modernloversModern Lovers by Emma Straub

I’ve long loved Emma Straub – in fact, her first book was one of the first I ever reviewed for print – and you may remember that I first became aware of her as a merchandiser for The Magnetic Fields. Her new novel is a charming and witty portrait of old friends who are struggling with their marriages, their children, and the shadow of their famous and dead former bandmate. This was a quick and fun read with characters that feel human and smart writing. Straub really knows how to write relatable characters – her teenagers are particularly sharp – and I enjoyed the warmth and humour she uses to tackle old wounds, first love and the stress of long-buried secrets.

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Emma Straub and her Modern Lovers muumuu

I was lucky to see Emma Straub in Toronto just this past week, in conversation with Sue Carter Flynn at the Toronto Reference library. She wore one of her fantastic Modern Lovers-print muumuus and talked about her past as a poet, her family, and how many Magnetic Fields secrets are in this book (none, although she did tell me a few!). She was an utter delight and I wouldn’t mind being her best friend, if she’s taking applications.

Dad Magazine by Jaya Saxena and Matt Lubchansky

dadmagAs one of my favourite columns on The Toast (RIP), I looked forward to a new “issue” of Dad Magazine every month, and the heartwarming dad stories in the comments. The book is a full issue of Dad Magazine, reporting on hard-hitting issues like how every sport has been ruined these days, what’s going on in the neighbour’s yard, and how to talk to your son about growing a beard. My favourite part were all the hilarious dad ads (“(d)ads,” if you will) advertising things like complete sets of state quarters, the local paper shredder emporium, and yarn-spinner’s workshops for dad storytelling – make sure you read the fine print for extra puns. Maybe it’s because I’m not a dad, but the full issue felt like a it was a little too much. I’m hoping for one more column on the Toast as a send-off.

Now Reading: Not Working by Lisa Owennotworking

I’ve only just started it, but so far Not Working has been a fun Bridget-Jones-esque exploration of a young woman’s struggle to find a job as her life comes undone. The writing is funny and sharp, and Claire feels almost a little too familiar as she scrambles to find a place in the world. I’m looking forward to reading more.

That’s what I’ve been reading lately! What’s your favourite book you’ve read in 2016 so far?

reviews

Review: The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

In The High Mountains of Portugal (Knopf), Yann Martel returns to magic realism in three interwoven stories about lost love and journeys taken to reclaim the past.

martelIn 1904, Tomas, grieving for his dead lover and son, sets out in a car he doesn’t know how to drive to find a long-lost religious artefact in rural Portugal. Three decades later, a woman from the same rural village brings her husband’s corpse to a pathologist in the middle of the night, where his autopsy reveals a surprising answer to how the man lived. Fifty years after that, Canadian Senator Peter adopts a chimpanzee and moves to the Portuguese mountains after the death of his wife.

In each of these stories, grief manifests in the loss of language: Tomas struggles to learn the mechanical tongue of the automobile; Dr. Lozora fails to communicate the medical procedure of the autopsy, and Peter faces the double language barrier of Portuguese and Odo the chimpanzee. All three must turn away from the past to discover a new way of life. As in his previous novels, Martel uses animals to ponder larger topics, this time Christianity, where the chimpanzee alternatively represents a crucified Christ, rebirth, and God itself.

I enjoyed this novel more than I was expecting (I, too, was wary after Beatrice and Virgil), and the elements of magic realism are used well, most memorably in the story of Dr. Lozora. While there were stronger religious metaphors present in this book, my favourite had to be the extended comparison of Jesus’s life to an Agatha Christie murder mystery. This novel is one that has grown in my mind since I’ve finished it, walking its way backwards into the peaks of my thoughts.

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This review first appeared in Geist 100.

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7 Books I’m Looking Forward to in 2016

The publishing industry has moved to a two-season model, where Fall books are pegged to be the big (Christmas & prizeable) hits, and where Spring/Summer titles sort of end up being everything else. Over the last couple years, my taste in books has shifted to the “everything else” category, with the result that there’s always a lot of books pubbing in the first half of a year that I can’t wait for. Here’s what’s got me counting down til Tuesdays in 2016:

Grace & Style: The Art of Pretending You Have It by Grace Helbig (Simon & Schuster, February 2 2016). This is cheating a little, because I have already purchased and devoured this book. It came out two weeks ago! Grace is one of my favourite Youtubers, and her first book was refreshingly candid. I thought Grace & Style had fewer sincere moments and useful advice than Grace’s Guide, but I still enjoyed it.

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The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel (Penguin Random House, February 2, 2016). Ok, I have already read this one too, thanks to an advance copy I received at work before Christmas, but the important thing is that after (what some might call) the misstep of Beatrice and Virgil, Yann Martel’s new book manages to refigure out the right combination of magic realism + animals to be captivating, if a little heavy-handed on the religious pondering. Favourite part: the comparison of Jesus’s life to an Agatha Christie murder mystery.

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What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi (Riverhead Books, March 8 2016). I am cheating a little here, too, because I was again very fortunate to get an ARC from work and am currently devouring it. Boy Snow Bird is one of my favourite books, and Oyeyemi’s writing is simultaneously delicate and sharp. Her new collection of stories is mixed for me, so far: nothing has yet surpassed the first story, “Books and Roses”, in heart. Recurring characters, themes (keys!) and elements of magic realism (guys. I love magic realism) run through the stories, and I have high hopes for the stories that remain.

Dad Magazine by Jaya Saxena and Matt Lubchansky (Quirk Books, April 26 2016). (Finally, you say, a book that she hasn’t read yet and is actually looking forward to). Inspired by one of my favourite columns on The ToastDad Magazine is a satirical look at the modern dad and his interests.If you read any of the Toast articles, be sure to read the comments: that’s where the real heart of the series is, readers’ stories and jokes about their own dads. I can only hope this book is as good as the column. Anecdote: last year at TCAF I met Jaya and Matt and was so excited to meet Toast columnists that I forgot to thank them for the gift that is Dad Magazine. That’s #1 on my list if they’re back this year.

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Modern Lovers by Emma Straub (Riverhead Books, May 31 2016). My interest in Emma Straub began when she was documenting The Magnetic Fields’ tours and selling merch way back in 2008 or so  (sidenote: my brother is in this tour photo of Emma’s; I am standing hidden beside him. I forgot about this until just now!). Admittedly, it wasn’t a very literary interest, but I liked her previous book and look forward to her new novel – coincidentally also following an aging NYC college band. I’m hoping to spot a few parallels.

Romeo and/or Juliet by Ryan North (Riverhead Books, June 7 2016). A follow-up to North’s To Be or Not To BeRomeo and/or Juliet is a choose-your-own adventure book with Shakespeare’s most tragic pair, coupled with character designs from my darling Kate Beaton, and illustrations from a host of the best comic artists around, including my favourites Noelle Stevenson and Emily Carroll.

Romeo-and-or-JulietHunger by Roxane Gay (HarperCollins, June 14 2016). After reading her essays on the complicated nature of feminism in Bad Feminist, I’m looking forward to more of Gay’s candour and insight in her new memoir about her relationship with her body. This might be the most important book I read all year.

That does it for books I’m counting down for in the first half of 2016, but I’ve already got my eye out on the second half:

  • Harry Potter and the Cursed Child scripts, Parts I & II (Pottermore, July 31 2016). This goes without saying, right?
  • Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer (FSG, September 6 2016)
  • Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh (Simon & Schuster, October 25 2016). This title has been delayed by a year already, so my fingers are crossed it makes its pub date this time.
  • The Merry Spinster by Mallory Ortberg (Macmillan, date unknown but I am hoping for Fall 2016). 

It doesn’t escape my notice that many of these titles are second and third books of authors I already like; I tend to play it safe with authors I know and love, but I’m excited to see if there’s any books that come out of left field and steal my heart unexpectedly. I’ll read my way through this list until then. Are there any books you’ve got your eye on this year?

reviews

Review: Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

Victory is mine!
Victory is mine!

A couple months ago, an advance copy of Welcome To Night Vale came across my desk. Or, more accurately, it came across a coworker’s desk and I literally snatched it out of his hands and claimed it for my own. I love the podcast – it got me through many tedious hours of coding – and saw the live show when it rolled through Toronto last year, so I’ve been looking forward to seeing how my favourite surrealist town translates to my favourite medium.

Set in the desert town made famous in the podcast of the same name, Welcome to Night Vale (Harper Perennial) by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor is a hilariously dark novel about family, strangers, lethal flamingo lawn ornaments, and the fallacy of memory.

While working at Night Vale’s pawn shop, nineteen-year-old Jackie Fierro receives a mysterious piece of paper that reads “WELCOME TO KING CITY” from a forgettable man in a tan jacket holding a deerskin suitcase. When the paper refuses to leave her hand, Jackie decides to investigate. On the other side of town, Night Vale PTA member Diane Crayton begins seeing her son’s estranged father wherever she goes, even as she works to keep them apart. Jackie and Diane must work together to figure out why these men keep crossing their paths, and find a way to get to King City, a town that seems to exist in a different dimension.

Fans of the podcast will enjoy learning more about their favourite townspeople and how they live in the bizarre cityscape that is Night Vale. I especially enjoyed visiting Carlos’ science lab (spoiler: everyone in Night Vale ships it), and the heist scenario of breaking into the librarian-infested library.

The cast of Welcome to Night Vale at Elgin Theatre, Toronto
The cast of Welcome to Night Vale at Elgin Theatre, Toronto

I had hoped that the novel would focus a bit more on Cecil than it did (he shows up in radio interludes scattered throughout the novel), but thought the novel worked well by following previously-unknown characters. The many new details about the town kept it just as strange and delightful as ever – the kitchen-standard hot milk drawer made me shudder, and the KING CITY paper joke was funny throughout the book. Although I enjoyed the novel, it started slowly, almost grindingly: in parts it felt like it was trying too hard to upkeep the surreal tone set by the podcast; the point that Jackie was nineteen and had been nineteen for decades felt unremarkable by Night Vale standards. However, by the time Diane and Jackie team up, the novel hits its stride and comes to a satisfying conclusion.

While Welcome to Night Vale is just as witty and even frustrating as the source material, I think that the world of Night Vale is better suited to an episodic format, rather than an extended novel. That won’t stop me from consuming another novel (if there is one), or any other media from this franchise – I’ve already got my tickets for the next Night Vale show this fall!

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Review: We Are Pirates by Daniel Handler

We+Are+PiratesWe Are Pirates (HarperCollins) is a witty adventure through modern-day piracy. The story alternates perspectives between Phil Needle, an increasingly unsuccessful radio executive, and his daughter Gwen, an increasingly bored teenager, as they both try to find happiness, or at least excitement, along San Francisco’s Embarcadero. While Phil waffles about pitching the next big radio show and sleeping with his secretary, Gwen and a band of misfits elect to become literal pirates, and damn the consequences.

Like Handler’s other novels, We Are Pirates excellently portrays what it’s like to be a teenager in the face of indifferent and incompetent adults. I would have liked less of Phil, whose storyline feels interchangeable for any other unhappy middle-aged white man in literature, and more of Gwen, who was daring and unpredictable and a hundred times more interesting. Despite the imbalance between his characters, Handler deftly knits irony, humour and danger into a surprisingly adventurous read.

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This review first appeared as “Frisco Freebooters” in Geist 96. 

reviews

Review: The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet

lizzie-bennet-diaries-book-coverIf you haven’t watched The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, do that before reading this review (I’ll wait). Produced by Hank Green and Bernie Su, the webseries is a compelling modern adaptation of Pride and Prejudice told through videoblogs. As a broke, unemployed 24-year-old grad student, Lizzie is relatable, flawed, and funny, and the series focuses on more than just the relationship statuses of the Bennet sisters. I was – and continue to be – a huge fan of the show, participating in the fandom, writing a grad paper and contributing to the show’s wildly successful Kickstarter (my DVDs just arrived in the mail!) One of my favourite aspects of the series is its transmedia element: during the run of the show, active social media accounts for each character allowed the story to unfold over multiple platforms, and allowed direct interaction between the viewers and the characters; LBD’s transmedia storytelling even won the show an Emmy. The last transmedia frontier was a book, which publishes on June 24. A novel based on a webseries based on a novel? As much as I love the videos, I was hesitant at first – how much new material could the book really give? The answer: not as much as I was hoping, but I still enjoyed reimmersing myself back in Lizzie’s life, and I think other fans will too.

The novel is set up as Lizzie’s pen-and-paper diary, sectioned into days that follow the arc of the videos closely. At the end of some chapters, the corresponding videos are linked (in my ebook version, anyway) for those who want to track the diary against the original videos. I liked this touch, since it reinforced the transmedia roots of the series. However, sometimes I felt that these links didn’t allow the book to breathe on its own, since it allowed for no distance between adaptations at all. More than once I was surprised to see that there weren’t diary entries between some videos at all – surely Lizzie would have something to say about events significant enough to record in her videos?

My main complaint is, that for a novel that positions itself as Lizzie’s “means to express [her] most private feelings,” it doesn’t actually explore Lizzie’s inner emotions more than visible on video. Yes, deflection and avoidance are prime Lizzie Traits, but I felt like the book favoured rehashing canon events rather than exploring what Lizzie is actually feeling in any depth. For example, something that bothered me is that, while the majority of the novel is split into first-person diary entries, the chapters corresponding to episode 60 and episode 98 – the two Darcy “proposals” and huge moments in the original series – are verbatim transcripts of the videos. I understand that when you have these two very popular canon scenes, it is a lot of possibly redundant work to recap these events in a new way or perspective, but I didn’t appreciate the break from Lizzie’s internal monologue to have these transcripts slotted in, especially when the next diary entries are days after these events; I felt cheated of Lizzie’s internal struggle and immediate feelings.

Another irritation I had was that characters, especially Lizzie, didn’t feel developed any more than we’ve already seen them on video. I understand that a lot Lizzie’s characterization work has been done already and entirely new traits and hobbies would be obvious retcon, but to me, it felt kind of lazy. I actually found Lizzie to be flatter than in the videos; I suspect this is because I didn’t feel that the novel was told in Ashley Clements’ voice (which is funny, since Bernie Su and Kate Rorick were both writers on the series). Lizzie likes: books, school, and presumably watching Youtube, although this is mentioned so in passing in her diary that it’s laughable (“I’m a fan of the Vlogbrothers and other videos of this style, so it [videos] can’t be too hard to produce, right?”). Along these same lines, the novel would have been a great opportunity to expand on places and events outside of Lizzie’s bedroom that the viewer never gets to see because of the inherent limitations of the vlog. However, this is another opportunity wasted: it turns out what Lizzie does when not making videos or participating in awkward Darcy run-ins or sister drama is go to the library, a lot. The amount Lizzie visits the library approaches Hermione-like proportions: she seems to spend almost every waking non-video moment there over the summer. It feels like they needed to make her do something, and settled on this; whatever the reason is, it gets kind of boring. Similarly, there are few descriptions of unseen locations (a notable exception is Lizzie’s house-sitting gig in San Francisco, which seems too good be to true). An actual line: “Netherfield is gorgeous; I’m sure I don’t have to elaborate.” Actually, this would have been a great place to elaborate, since all the viewers saw of it was one purple bedroom!

The novel dispelled many of my personal headcanons, but that is to be expected, and there were some nice surprises: we learn where Lizzie got her idea to start vlogging and where her camera comes from, more about her home life and time spent jobshadowing, and exactly when her feelings for Darcy start. There are couple juicy nonvideo plotlines and information, such as new insights into Jane and Bing’s relationship, Darcy’s letter, and seeing Lizzie’s parents in more depth. Other details – such as Caroline’s job, what was happening with Bing’s med school, and why Lizzie didn’t watch Lydia’s videos – are also given, but felt more filling in obvious plotholes, but I appreciate that the authors addressed it, all the same. If you are looking for final authority as to what Jane’s indescretion was, prepare to be disappointed.

Despite my complaints, the book really is enjoyable. There are many running jokes and fandom references (Seahorse count: 1), and I sincerely hope that the line “My phone lit up like a Christmas tree” is a TFIOS allusion.

Agreed, tumblr user makeyourdeduction, agreed.

 

There is a lot more Darcy, since, without Lizzie being limited by the camera, we can live her accounts of the Most Awkward Dance Ever, every uncomfortable Netherfield moment, and the San Francisco tour first-hand – all entertaining, all primed to show how skewed Lizzie’s perspective is. I think my favourite part of this book was the fact that two new bonus LBD videos were produced to promote it; whatever that might say about the quality of the book itself, it was worth it for that new content alone. Overall, it was a delights to spend more time with Lizzie Bennet and I hope this isn’t the last we see of her.

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Great Books You Probably Haven’t Read

Last week, John Green, the patron saint of authors on social media and online communities, made a video recommending eighteen of his favourite books that aren’t bestsellers. The full list is available in the video description (and here). He was right – I hadn’t read any of them, although I’ve added a number of them to my mountainous to-read list (and some are great for my 2014 reading challenges!). John’s video got me thinking about how everyone probably has a list of favourite, underrated books, and how sharing them could be a fun way of discovering new reading material. So here is a list of my top five beloved books that you probably haven’t read.

thebasiceight-handler

The Basic Eight by Daniel Handler

A fictional true-crime diary, The Basic Eight satirizes the satanic panic of the 1990s in a San Francisco high school, loosely based on Handler’s own high school. Flannery Culp is a pretentious teenager with a pretentious friend group and an unrequited crush on the indifferent Adam State. Features include: three layers of narration (including, hilariously, moralizing vocabulary and study questions inserted by an uptight TV psychologist), croquet, terribly clever writing, absinthe, glamorous best friends named Natasha, unreliable narrators, and murder. This is my actual favourite book. If you choose to read it, report back wisely.

Eight-Days-of-Luke

Eight Days of Luke by Diana Wynne Jones

Diana Wynne Jones’ books are wonderful children’s fantasy, and I devoured every one the library had in stock when I was a kid. I had a hard time choosing which DWJ book to include here (a very close second was the Chrestomanci series), but Eight Days of Luke won out because it’s the book that ruined American Gods for me when I read it years later; basically everything I’ve read of Neil Gaiman reads like a pale imitation of a Diana Wynne Jones book. Eight Days of Luke follows David, a neglected boy stuck at home during school holidays with his miserable guardians, and the strange things that happen when a mysterious boy named Luke appears in David’s backyard. Fantasy and reality blend as David realises Luke and his relatives are not what they appear. As a standalone, this book is a great introduction to Jones’ work.

watchyourmouth-handler Watch Your Mouth by Daniel Handler

There is probably a good reason that Watch Your Mouth is on no one’s radar, and that’s because it has questionable content, and a lot of it (namely, all incest all the time). However, this is the best young-adult incest-comedy gothic Jewish porn opera novel that you will ever read. The first half of the narrative is constructed as an opera, with plot events arranged in acts and scenes, accompanied by strings and woodwinds, and the operahouse audience reader is directly addressed; Joseph spends the summer at his girlfriend’s parents’ house and discovers they have a terrible secret, which culminates in the appearance of a life-sized clay Golem and murder. The second half (printed in dark red; symbolism ahoy!) is set up as a twelve-step program, in which Joseph tries to recover from his summer at the Glass’s and figure out this Golem business. Watch Your Mouth is risky in form and content, but witty and satisfying.

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My Life as a Fake by Peter Carey

I first read this book last year as a part of a course I was teaching, and all my friends and students hated it, but I loved it. Literary editor Sarah is lured to Malaysia by a sleazy family friend, and there discovers Christopher Chubb, a writer who tells her an incredible tale of his fictional character Bob McCorkle coming to life, haunting him, and abducting his daughter. Sarah must choose whether to believe or confront him in order to get her hands on the finest piece of literature she has ever read – a manuscript written by McCorkle (or is it Chubb?). My Life as a Fake is based on the 1943 Ern Malley hoax and questions the intersection of fiction and reality. It’s also an intertext of Frankenstein; I love the reading of Chubb as a mad scientist who stitches together McCorkle out of his own skin. Delightfully confusing and macabre, I change my mind about the truth of McCorkle every time I read it.

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Movies in Fifteen Minutes by Cleolinda Jones

So, Cleolinda is my favourite blogger, and her screenplay-style parodies of popular movies took LiveJournal by storm back in the mid-2000s. They’re still funny, and she posts one or two new ones a year, although these days you can more commonly find her recapping television shows and nailing it, as usual. Her book features Movies in 15 Minutes that never appeared online, including Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Sorcerer’s Philosopher’s Stone, The Matrix, Titanic, and (hilariously) the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy. This is my go-to book for bedtime reading when I need something funny to settle my brain raccoons.

Have you read any of these (or have I convinced you)? Let me know what you thought, and what your favourite under-the-radar books are!

reviews

Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Every decade or so, Donna Tartt reemerges from her reclusive writerly life to publish a new book, at which time her readers crawl back out from under the spines of other novels, ready to accept the magnificent volume into our lives and libraries. I don’t keep it a secret that Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is my favourite book (along with Daniel Handler’s The Basic Eight, which is in the same vein, really: pretentious teenagers, witty writing, murder), so I was eager to see if Tartt’s new book could compare. Spoiler alert: it does. The Goldfinch returns with Tartt’s signature combination of unforgettable characters and gorgeous prose.The_goldfinch_by_donna_tart

I was fortunate to attend Tartt’s reading at the Toronto Reference Library last November, and since I thought I would never, ever get the opportunity to see her in person or get a book signed, I was thrilled. Like, really thrilled. Cross-it-off-the-bucket-list thrilled. At the reading, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Tartt is less severe than her author photos and reclusiveness might suggest: she warmly answered questions from both the interviewer (Jared Bland, who was wonderful as always) and fans (only appearing weary at one questioner’s insistence that she name her top four books. They were, for the record: Lolita, Bleak House, Jekyll & Hyde and The Great Gatsby). Dream fulfilled, I settled down to finish the novel.

At nearly eight hundred pages, The Goldfinch was certainly worth the eleven-year wait since The Little Friend. The story is told by Theo Decker, who as a young boy survives a bombing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The explosion kills his mother and creates a bond between Theo and a dying old man, who encourages him to take the titular Goldfinch painting. For reasons he can’t explain, Theo doesn’t return the painting, but keeps it secretly with him when his his previously absent, alcoholic father turns up to whisk him off to Las Vegas for a life of artificial domesticity, complete with McMansion, dog and new stepmother. In Vegas, Theo befriends Boris, another abandoned son, and the pair search for meaning in the desolate desert landscape, and increasingly in petty theft, drugs, and alcohol. Theo later returns to New York (with painting hidden in his suitcase) and grows up under the care of Hobie, a delightfully absent-minded antiques restorer. Theo remains haunted by his past, his parents, his painting, until Boris shows up to turn Theo’s life upside down, again. The Goldfinch is a sort of Tell-Tale Heart story, with Theo slowly being driven mad by his act of theft – obsessively checking on the painting, compulsively tracking the news for hints that the authorities might be on to him, and gazing on it in a my-precious sort of way.

The Goldfinch questions the difference between life and art by consuming Theo’s life with paintings, museums, and antiques, but seems to suggest that what both have in common is not love, or passion, but artifice. The novel’s  character-like settings (art-obsessed New York City, the spectral suburbs of “Lost Vegas,” and feverish Amsterdam) mirror the important people in Theo’s life (shallow Kitsey, his delinquent father, and the unattainable Pippa), and highlight his loneliness. Perhaps only Boris escapes accusations of artifice: hot-tempered, drunk, and charming, he embodies the chaotic life that Theo is thrown into, but simultaneously manages to ground him and provide freedom. As usual with Tartt’s male protagonists, Theo is a wonderfully deceptive narrator, and Tartt manages to surprise the reader again and again with her skillful plotting. With its beautiful writing and engaging story, The Goldfinch is my favourite book of 2013.

reviews

Review: Night Film by Marisha Pessl

Night Film by Marisha Pessl (Random House) is an uncanny psychological thriller that delves into the secretive world of underground filmmaker Stanislas Cordova to explore the relationship between the constructs of truth and fantasy.Pessl_Night-Film

Night Film follows discredited investigative journalist Scott McGrath as he attempts to discover why Ashely Cordova, the daughter of super genius, super reclusive, and super disturbing filmmaker Stanislas Cordova, has killed herself after mysteriously appearing to him. Aided by Nora and Hopper, two teenagers who also had contact with Ashley before her death, McGrath wades through an ever-twisting series of leads involving witchcraft, an escape from a mental asylum, Satanic rituals, matching tattoos, disappearing witnesses, a false priest, and rumours of child mistreatment. All clues seem to point back to the mysterious Cordova, who seems to be loosely based on Stanley Kubrick, and who haunts the novel through his absence, frequently slipping out of McGrath’s reach just as he nears the truth. Perhaps the most uncanny sequence in the novel when McGrath and crew infiltrate Cordova’s estate and seem to enter one of Cordova’s films. The consistently eerie scenarios (such as the disappearance of all interview subjects and evidence files overnight, or the mysterious black figurine that McGrath finds planted on all children connected with Ashley, including his own young daughter) and characters (the cryptic Cordova, the son with three missing fingers) keep the novel engaging and delightfully tense.

Example of Night Film's media
Example of Night Film’s media

One innovative aspect of Night Film is its media: mockup pages of online articles, websites, police reports, scraps of paper and photographs augment the text in a way that reminded me of Lemony Snicket’s Unauthorized Autobiography. Initially I was disappointed that the URLs on the webpage mockups didn’t lead anywhere when I typed them into my browser; perhaps, I thought, my transmedia expectations were too high after The Lizzie Bennet Diaries or Sherlock’s The Science of Deduction and John Watson blogs. However, I was happily surprised when I reached the end and discovered that there was a decoder app I could download to scan the bird symbols I’d noticed in some of the images (pleasingly, the app works on the ebook version too!). This revealed an extensive amount of extra content, more than I had been expecting: case reports from Ashley’s time at Briarwood, transcripts from court proceedings, recordings of Ashley’s music, even a syllabus for Beckman’s class on Cordova. Pessl’s YouTube channel also has “found footage” from Cordova’s films. I wish I had discovered this content before I finished the book, as it would have added even more depth to Scott McGrath’s investigation. As it is, all credit to Pessl and Random House for undertaking this transmedia project.

I had conflicted feelings about Pessl’s previous book, Special Topics in Calamity Physics: I really liked the first two-thirds, but hated the ending. So I approached Night Film with caution, afraid of getting burned again. But no fear! Night Film delivered a strong, strange story that kept me eagerly reading from start to finish.