The Girl With all of the Gifts, by M.R. Carey

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“The Girl With all the Gifts” was an excellent read for many reasons. It was tense, action-packed and well-imagined. While it isn’t the first zombie book to employ the idea of a sentient and not-so-flesh-hungry zombie (i.e. Warm Bodies), it was a compelling read. It was also a heartbreaking examination of what it means to be human, or not-quite human, at least.

For the Greater Good

“The Girl With all of the Gifts” poses an interesting question: what constitutes humanity? Melanie, a zombie kid who can think and talk like the rest of us, struggles with this idea a lot in the book. Part horror narrative, part coming of age story, Melanie’s story is captivating because we follow her growth as she comes to understand who she is and what her role will be in the new post-apocalyptic London.

Apart from the engrossing journey of Melanie and a group of humans from the base where she was kept, M.R. Carey plays with some fascinating concepts. We hear stories about the bombing of “hungry infested zones,” where there are lots of civilian casualties among many other violent, ugly things that echo what has been done in the name of peace and progress. That Melanie, a zombie, can learn to suppress her violent urges and yet Dr. Caroline Caldwell makes a career of dissecting zombie children in the name of science was one particularly evocative juxtaposition.

The New American (British?) Dream

The zombie narrative is not a new idea, although there has been several iterations of zombies laying siege to continents to suggest that the trend has captivated the minds of readers everywhere. Even the CDC has a section of their website for “zombie preparedness!”

Professor Mark Anderson of University of Regina, who is aptly named “The Zombie Prof” suggests that our fascination with the undead comes from a fear of invasion, but also for a desire to rebuild and create a new “American” dream. That the notion of starting over in a world where work is permanently cancelled and there are no mortgage payments seems to be part of the twisted post-apocalyptic fantasy. After reading “The Girl With all of the Gifts,” I’d have to agree. While there is no specific moment in this book where a “takeover” occurs, we are left with Melanie and Ms. Justineau, her favourite teacher. We are given the impression that there is hope, but perhaps not the same kind of hope we had imagined in a world free of zombie pathogens.

The Final Verdict

This book was compulsively readable. Heartbreaking. One of the coolest zombie narratives I’ve ever read. What better way is there to start off the holiday season than to read a zombie book that is both horrifying and oddly heartwarming.

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Young Jane Young, by Gabrielle Zevin

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At first glance, Young Jane Young is about scandal, which I happen to like. Quirky, offbeat and often hilarious, the many narrators of “Jane’s” tale are both original and highly entertaining. When you begin to peel back the layers of this complicated and (at times) emotionally eviscerating tale of Aviva Grossman and the people who orbit around her life, it becomes clear that at its heart, Young Jane Young is an exploration of the politics of relationships.

Marriage, She Wrote

Throughout this book, there were several moments where women of all ages were put in submissive positions, or were in some way forced to escape from uncomfortable situations. Aviva’s mother takes us through the trials and tribulations of dating as an older woman, Franny is constantly subdued by her husband and Aviva herself is thrown into the middle of a controversy when she has an affair with a married congressman.

What I found most interesting about this narrative thread was the constant return to the idea of marital fidelity and the role of the women involved. In several of the interconnected storylines, there are married men who are  unfaithful, but each time, it is always the woman who is judged. This is made particularly evident with Aviva’s Grossman, who we learn from the beginning that she has changed her name just to escape the scandal. I think that Gabrielle Zevin creates a lot of strong moments within her narrative that will make readers think more deeply about relationship inequalities and in particular, slut shaming.

A Complicated Kindess

Along with the hardships such as slut shaming that many of the female characters face, Young Jane Young has a lot of funny, sweet moments that kept me reading late into the night. I loved Aviva’s relationship with her daughter, Ruby and their closeness. Although I felt that Ruby’s section of narrative felt disconnected from the other non-epistolary parts, her story was necessary (and completely devastating). What I loved the most about these female narratives was that the characters felt honest and their relationships, though flawed, were enjoyable to follow. I felt like nothing was simple and that made it all the more fascinating to read.

An Intelligent, Multi-layered Narrative

Read this book if you love quick-paced books with lots of narrative layers. Each time I picked up this book, I felt like I was discovering new elements to the story that only deepened my fascination with the characters and their ongoing plights. Zevin even makes references to The Scarlet Letter and Robert McNamera’s “mutually assured destruction,” which were clever details that added to the overarching ideas.

I’m glad that I was given an Advanced Reader Copy of Young Jane Young, because it is an intelligent and funny read that I feel is particularly relevant right now with all of the scandals that are going on in Hollywood right now. Barring that, it’s an exceptionally written story that was a lot of fun to read.

 

 

Book Review: The Jane Austen Project, by Kathleen A. Flynn

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When I think about Jane Austen, admittedly, my first thought is of Colin Firth in the BBC version of Pride & Prejudice jumping into that darn lake in his white, blousy shirt and looking fine. I don’t know what it says about me as a reader, but I do know that Kathleen A. Flynn’s The Jane Austen Project was a deeply satisfying read that was, in places, evocative of that glorious wet-shirt version of Colin Firth. Equal parts thriller, historical fiction and romance, there is a lot to admire about this book.

I’m a sucker for a good time travel narrative, and I feel like Flynn’s story had it all. Not unlike Jack Finney’s Time and Again, Rebecca and Liam have a somewhat seamless entry into Jane Austen’s 1815, where they are supposed to meet and befriend Jane Austen in order to diagnose the disease that will purportedly kill her and steal an unwritten manuscript, “The Watsons.” However, their so-called seamless plan quickly begins to go awry when Rebecca meddles too much in the course of history…

Time Travel, at its Best

What I loved about Flynn’s version time travel was that it was not overly complicated.  We learn early on that Liam and Rebecca come from a future where time travel exists, but the only technical jargon that Flynn uses was the “access point” to the portal and the “spectronanometer,” which helps them find their portal. I liked this, because it didn’t bog down the narrative and kept the story feeling accessible.

Even so, Rebecca’s flashbacks to The Royal Institute for Special Topics in Physics were fascinating. I loved reading about their preparation for living in 1815 and the theoretical possibility of changing the future world that Rebecca comes from by intervening too much in 1815. While this is a convention often used in time travel narratives, I felt that Flynn used it well.

See Jane Live

As a bit of a Jane Austen fangirl, I loved Flynn’s characterization of Jane Austen. Paired with the specific and (I think) historically accurate details of Jane Austen’s life and her time period, it made for a lovely reading experience. While I have previously enjoyed Jane Austen’s books, I hadn’t learned much about the author behind the works. (I had no idea that Jane Austen died at 41 or that she really did write “The Watsons” and never published it). At the end of The Jane Austen Project, I felt like had befriended Jane Austen and it was evident that as a member of the Jane Austen Society of North America Kathleen A. Flynn must have done a lot of research for The Jane Austen Project.

With a healthy dose of historical details, a bit of spying and romance thrown in the mix, The Jane Austen Project is a great, quick read that any time-travel buff or Jane Austen fan should pick up!

 

 

Manhattan Beach, by Jennifer Egan: A Book Review

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Jennifer Egan, known for her unique form, has a new book out and while it is a departure from the stories that we have loved, I’ll bet you that Manhattan Beach is going to be a new favourite. (At least, it is for me). I received the ARC of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Part mystery, part historical epic, Manhattan Beach has something for just about everyone.

Three Stories

While some reviewers may claim that the book feels disjointed, I liked the variety between the storylines and felt that they intersected in interesting and unexpected ways. Perhaps those readers who first fell in love with A Visit From the Goon Squad weren’t expecting a narrative that follows a different and more linear path.

Egan takes us from the Great Depression into World War Two, splitting the narrative voices between Anna, who struggles to find a place among the men at the naval stockyard, Anna’s father and Dexter Styles (a night club owner). Was it a shock to be suddenly dropped into he 1940’s with an adult Anna? Sure. But I felt that the resulting mystery of Eddie’s disappearance made up for this jolt in the narrative time-frame. It was fascinating to see such a well-researched historical novel unfold from three different points of view, because it added a well-rounded perspective to the story.

A Feisty Heroine

Who doesn’t love an awesome, strong heroine to cheer on? Perhaps my favourite part of Manhattan Beach was following Anna as she becomes the first woman diver in New York Harbour. At a recent interview at the Toronto Public Library Appel Salon, Jennifer Egan mentioned that she interviewed the real-life inspiration for Anna’s character and that a lot of her research was about going beneath the surface of the time that she was writing in, to bring more emotional depth to her characters. With Anna’s character in particular, I felt that this was true.

If you love books that celebrate feisty women and take you on a wild ride through the seedy gang world of New York in the 1930’s-1940’s, pick up a copy of Manhattan Beach.

 

Yak & Dove, by Kyo Maclear

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Even before I became a mother, I have always had a special love for picture books. For my Master’s degree, I chose to write about some of my favourite picture books. Later, when Little Dude showed up on the scene, I revelled in finally having a “reason” to buy as many gorgeous picture books as my arms could carry. For me, the very best picture books are the ones that tell a multi-layered story through sharply honed prose and pictures. I was already a fan of Kyo Maclear’s other books, but Yak & Dove is a new favourite. Luckily, I was given an advanced review copy of Yak & Dove from Penguin Random House Canada/Tundra Books.

Adorable Characters

Yak and Dove are instantly lovable because they are so forthright in their discussions about what it would be like to be twins, or in the minor annoyances that they face on a daily basis such as being too loud or too quiet. The pictures by Esme Shapiro compliment the quirky dialogue with the whimsical, brightly coloured creatures too. Yak & Dove‘s hilarious antics will have kids (and their adult counterparts) flipping pages pretty quickly!

Snappy Vignettes

What I loved most was the structure of this book. Each segment of the story was broken up by a beautifully illustrated heading, such as “Twins” and “The Audition.” It gave the story a larger, sprawling feel and even though the through-line carried along in all the vignettes, I felt like the story had layers. Because the words are all a dialogue between Yak & Dove, the pacing of this book is quite fast too. Even though the book isn’t longer than other picture books, I loved feeling like I had a longer time with the adorable Yak & Dove.

A Unique Message

I think what makes this story so honest and heartfelt are all of the moments where Yak & Dove discover how they are different, but find that they are still happiest together. The message carries through all of the vignettes in a fun, lighthearted way and it is a pleasure to watch Yak & Dove embark on their adventures together. (My favourite being “Yak & Quiet,” because I could not stop laughing at Yak’s “quiet garden.”)

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The idea of being different, but compatible is a unique message, and I like that. Whether Yak & Dove were squabbling about being too loud and quiet or making up after a big fight, the message is clear: people who are different can love each other. I love this. I love this book. If you haven’t already, go and pick up a copy when it hits the shelves on September 19th. (And then, because all of her books are equal parts beautiful and funny, pick up the rest of Kyo Maclear’s books too).

 

Rich People Problems, by Kevin Kwan

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I wanted to savour this book, because it is the third in the trilogy and because I love, love,  love Kevin Kwan’s writing, but in the end I couldn’t put it down. Like Crazy Rich Asians and China Rich Girlfriend, Rich People Problems takes the reader back to the wildly luxurious world of the ultra-rich. In this book, Nicholas Young’s grandmother Su Yi is on her deathbed, which draws out the whole Shang-Young clan, each group hoping to inherit the coveted Tyersall Park. Complete with psychotic ex-wives, kidnappings, proposals and exotic destinations, reading this book feels like going on a vacation.

Something for Everyone

There were so many different storylines to follow in this book. In another book, I might have had a hard time keeping up, but in Rich People Problems it ratcheted up the suspense to another level. Just when I’d find out some new information about one storyline, I’d be dropped into another one and it kept me reading. For that reason, I’d say that the narrative structure of this book makes it a quick read.

Fantastic Backdrops

I’m not going to lie. Half of the reason I am addicted to these books is the amazing settings and the jet-setting characters who find themselves flying to Paris on their private planes on a whim. There are so many gorgeous places that the characters visit in this book! In particular, I loved his descriptions of the Indian palace, because they were so precise.  I read one of Kevin Kwan’s books, it’s like he’s handing me a round the world ticket, complete with hilarious in-flight entertainment.

Sidebar: there are footnotes!

Apart from the delightful settings, the hilarious characters and the diverse plots, the numerous footnotes add an extra layer of intrigue that creates an immersive reading experience. While I’m not normally a fan of footnotes, since they do momentarily take the reader out of the action and disrupt the flow, in this case I have to say that they were so fascinating that I didn’t mind the brief disruption. Some of the footnotes are so weird and funny, especially the ones that explain crude Hokkien phrases. Apart from creating a conversational feel to the narrative, all of the little details about real places and people adds some great verisimilitude. As I have mentioned before, I am obsessed with verisimilitude. 

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Read this Book (And Laugh!)

This book made me laugh out loud in a public place. To clarify, I’m a quiet, hide-in-the-corner with my book kind of girl. But this book was so darn funny and sweet and exciting that for a little while, I guess I did become a laugh-out-loud person. This book is so much more than a hilarious summer read.  Read Rich People Problems and let yourself be transported to a world of excitement.

 

Have you read any of Kevin Kwan’s books? Which travel books have you loved?

Unicorn Power (Lumberjanes #1), by Mariko Tamaki & Brooke Allen

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What the junk?! There’s a new Lumberjanes NOVEL for middle-grade readers hitting stores this October! Even if you’re not a hardcore lady type, this book will have readers in stitches as they follow Ripley, Molly, Jo, Mal and April on an all new adventure as they  attempt to scale a massive mountain. As usual, things don’t go quite as planned and lots of weird stuff happens. My inner X-Files nerd loves this series for that reason.

Written by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Brooke Allen (one of the series’ original creators), there are plenty of zany adventures, wicked-awesome catch phrases and hilarious moments that keep the plot humming along. I read an advanced reader copy earlier this summer and couldn’t put it down.

What in the Joan, Jett? There’s Unicorns?!

Did I not mention that? Apart from the always charming girl-power heroines, adding unicorns into the mix of supernatural creatures that the girls encounter was lots of fun. The storyline felt whimsical, just like the graphic novels, which I appreciated since I am such a huge fan of the series. There were all sorts of hilarious details, like beautiful unicorns that smell terrible and bizarre camper badges too.

Friendship to the Max!

One detail that I loved about this book was the ability to learn more about each character through the detailed backstory. In the graphic novels, there are lots of fascinating reveals too, but I found that in this medium, there was an even greater opportunity to reveal more through changing point of view and narration. Through the varying narrative voices, this new instalment of Lumberjanes has a lot of cool moments that add a whole new level of enjoyment to the reading experience.

Fantastic Illustrations!

Have I mentioned yet how much I love the illustrations? Scattered throughout the prose, there are lots of illustrations that could have come right from the graphic novels themselves. It was fun to read a scene and then see an imagining of what it might look like, since I’d already read the graphic novels. Truthfully, I’m a sucker for sketches or other elements that give a text greater depth, because it makes the whole reading experience feel richer.

Should you read this book? Um, yeah. If you like girl-power narratives, high-stakes adventures or just stories about lots of weird things happening, this book is for you!