The Storied Life of AJ Fikry

Rating:
Author: Gabrielle Zevin
Genres: Fiction
Pub date: Apr. 2014 (read Apr. 2019)

I really put off writing my review for this book, so it’s probably going to be a bit short since the book is no longer fresh in my mind.

Overall The Storied Life of AJ Fikry was a little disappointing for me. Not because it wasn’t good or I didn’t like, but because so many of my goodreads friends have rated the book so high that I went into it with really high expectations, and the story just didn’t quite live up to those expectations. I definitely liked the book, hence the 3 star rating, but it’s not going to make my favourites list.

Gabrielle Zevin has an interesting writing style – I do have an unread copy of one of her other books, Young Jane Young, on my shelf, so I would like to pick that one up soon. This one reminded me a little bit of A Man Called Ove. I wasn’t sure what to think of a lot of the characters initially, but ended up growing to appreciate them all, minor characters included.

It is an interesting book. It’s definitely more of a character driven book than a plot driven book, which I generally prefer, and it was sometimes hard to know where the story was going. I like books that can take the mundane from everyday life and make it fascinating. I really liked AJ Fikry’s character. He’s suffering from the loss of his wife and then loses his fortune, so things are really not looking great for him, but I loved his no nonsense approach to life and the logic through which he ended up welcoming Maya into his life. So I liked that I never really knew where the story was going and that it never really followed any predictable narratives. For example, when Maya showed up, I was like, “Oh, this is going to be a Fredrik Backman type book where Maya opens AJ up to love again”, which she did, but it was never really the focus of the book and the plot went to some places I wasn’t expecting.

As a book lover, it’s hard not to like a story about other book lovers and I liked the way that AJs bookstore became a sort of community centre for the people living on the island. The bookstore wasn’t really doing well after the death of AJ’s wife because people’s pity for AJ kept them out of the store, but after he adopts Maya, I guess the community felt that AJ might need their support and his bookstore became more of a community space as his customers starting joining book clubs.

To conclude, it was a nice story about community and how sometimes misfortune and the mundane can actually end up changing your life.

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Queenie

Rating:
Author: Candice Carty-Williams
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Mar. 2019 (read Apr. 2019 on Audible)
Narrator: Shvorne Marks

I completely sped through this audiobook! Queenie wasn’t really on my radar at all and then suddenly, it was everywhere! It’s been compared to Bridget Jones and it featured a Jamaican-British, 25 year old, so I was definitely intrigued. Plus the audiobook narrator sounded great in the sample and had me laughing out loud in her 5 minute clip.

The reviews are a bit mixed on the book though and after reading it, I can definitely understand why. Queenie works for a newspaper and has just split up with her boyfriend of 3 years, Tom. They’ve been struggling as a couple, so they decide to go on a break for 3 months. but Queenie really struggles with the separation and turns to casual sex to fill the void in her life. She’s lonely and her break with Tom is really the start of a pretty brutal downward spiral and a ongoing fight with anxiety and depression.

The reason I say I can understand why some people would dislike this book is because Queenie is often a frustrating and sometimes unlikable character. She has very little self esteem or self respect and she struggles to stay motivated at work, making a lot of bad choices, both in her personal and professional life. She’s also black and struggles with institutionalized racism at work, casual racism in her relationship with Tom, and fetishism in her romantic life.

The book is hard to read at times because Queenie is so rough on herself and you just want her to come to terms with reality and start to make her life better. But I loved it because she felt like such a real character. Despite her bad choices, I really empathized with her and her friends. She knows she’s not okay and she just keeps pushing ahead toward the end of her “break” with Tom with the idea that if she can just return to her relationship, everything else will sort itself out. But she eventually has to come to terms with the fact that she is the only person who can sort out her problems and that getting back with Tom won’t fix the other things she’s struggling with.

This is ultimately a book about mental health and the additional struggles that black people and immigrants face in achieving success and finding support. Queenie is up against additional hurdles because she is black and even though her family loves her very much, there’s a real cultural disconnect in the way that they think about mental illness. Her family has suffered so much physical and emotional trauma in immigrating, that they are very dismissive of mental health and the value of therapy. I loved when Queenie was finally able to recognize that counselling might actually be able to help her and that she pursued it despite what her family thought. She is adverse to medicating for her panic attacks though, which I thought was a too bad because it probably would have helped her a lot.

Because of the depth of Queenie’s struggles, I’ve read a lot of reviews that the comparison to Bridget Jones isn’t accurate. I knew that going into the book and I was fine with it because I always prefer a little more depth to my characters, but I would actually agree with the assessment that this is like Bridget Jones. It’s definitely darker and not a fun rom-com like Bridget Jones, but I did notice a lot of parallels, which I thought made the book even more enjoyable.

Queenie has a similar sense of humour to Bridget, which I equate with British humour. She’s self deprecating and unflinchingly honest – to the point of oversharing. Like Bridget, she’s someone who is ready to settle down with a man, but continually finds herself making poor decisions. She works in publishing, makes the mistake of acting on an ill-informed work romance, and has a small group of friends that she turns to for support. Her group of friends consists of Darcy, Cassandra, and Cheska (sorry, I listened to audio so I genuinely have NO idea how to spell her name, so I’m going with the phonetic spelling). I loved that she called her friends “the corgis” and I loved all the interactions she had with them. I thought each of these women were fully realized as secondary characters and I found them all extremely relatable. Everyone has women like this in their lives, even snooty, annoying friends like Cassandra. Cheska was my favourite because her and Queenie understood each other better, both being black, but I also really liked Darcy, who supported Queenie in her own way as well.

Even though I couldn’t personally relate with most of Queenie’s problems, overall I still thought she was so relatable! Her character was so honest and I thought the author did a wonderful job in taking us on Queenie’s journey to self discovery. The book explores how everyone has baggage and that everyone deals with those issues in different ways. You don’t need to apologize for falling apart, and you don’t have to put yourself back together alone. I thought this book also did a great job at shining a light on all of the little microaggressions that black people have to put up with day after day and how people repeatedly dismiss their existence and see them as less than human in some circumstances. Men fetishized Queenie’s black skin and curves and they treated her with less respect than I think they would a white woman. In most cases, Queenie deserved the criticisms she received, but there were definitely other cases where she was discriminated against and treated unfairly as a black woman.

I also liked that this was ultimately a story about self-discovery and self-love and that Queenie never solved her problems by finding romantic love. Stories like this often follow the troupe where the woman has no luck with love but then eventually finds it in the least likely place and everything ends happily ever after. Queenie tries to fill the void in her life with sex, but ultimately realizes that her happiness in not contingent on a man and that her familial and friend relationships are ultimately the most important relationships in her life.

I also liked that when Queenie started looking after her mental health, she found more clarity in where she was at fault in her relationships and where other people were at fault. It’s clear from the beginning that Tom and Queenie had relationship issues. She initially blames Tom for all their issues, and while he is definitely still at fault for a lot of their problems (namely not sticking up for her against his family’s casual racism), Queenie realizes that she is also at fault for some of their problems. She is better able to recognize her own harmful habits and identify the habits others have that are harmful to her, but that she has let slide in the past.

There are some relationships where it is worth forgiving the person who has hurt you. It’s evident from the beginning that Queenie has a bad relationship with her mom, although it’s a while before we learn the extent of why. Her mother undeniably hurt her and some of the decisions she made were terrible, but sometimes it is worth acknowledging a person’s shortcomings, but still deciding to forgive them in the interest of safeguarding that relationship. Then there are other relationships where you really don’t owe the person who has hurt you anything. Just because they want your forgiveness, it doesn’t mean you have to grant it, and there are times when it is better to cut that harmful person out of your life, regardless of how they say they’ve been transformed.

Overall, a great read. Maybe not for everyone, especially if you struggle with frustrating or unlikable characters. Personally, I never disliked Queenie, I just lamented her bad choices. My favourite parts were the frank discussions around mental health and the examples of microaggressions that Black people face on a daily basis. I will miss reading about this character!

Etta and Otto and Russell and James

Rating: .5
Author: Emma Hooper
Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Magical Realism
Pub. date: Jan. 2014 (read Mar. 2019)

Okay, Emma Hooper is definitely emerging as one of my favourite writers! I read her second book, Our Homesick Songs, last year and absolutely loved it! I may have been a bit biased because it’s a book about Newfoundland, but Hooper herself isn’t a Newfoundlander and I really think it’s a book that can appeal to anyone. So when I saw her debut novel on sale at Book Outlet, I had to buy it.

Hooper has a really lovely way of writing and I could see how her style wouldn’t appeal to everyone, but I really love it. I feel like joined the “Book World” last year when I started my book blog because I was suddenly exposed to all these other book bloggers and booktubers that I hadn’t before. Booktube for sure is comprised mostly of young book bloggers (like they make me feel old), so they trend towards reading a lot of YA contemporary and YA fantasy. I’ve always liked both of those genres, but when I started engaging more in the book world, suddenly I felt like this was all I was being exposed to and as a result, I started reading a lot of YA and fantasy.

This is fine, because I love both those genres, but I’ve definitely become fatigued with them over the last 4-6 months and I went on a fantasy freeze back before Christmas. I enveloped myself back in fantasy in January again and I probably should have paced myself a little because coming into March, I definitely need another fantasy break.

Anyways, this was all a long winded way of saying that I’m trying to get back into reading some more literary fiction and reading Emma Hooper’s Etta and Otto and Russell and James was like a breath of fresh air. I’ve discovered over the last few years that I prefer character-driven stories over plot-driven stories, even though they sometimes involve more of a commitment to read. I always love a good character driven story and overall I find them more rewarding.

I love Hooper’s subtle Canadian stories. I invested some time last year in reading more Canadian literature and damn, a lot of Canadian literature is just depressing. But even though both of Hooper’s books have some pretty sad themes, they are a joy to read and I love how she entwines magical elements into her stories and builds her narrative around everyday, mundane life events.

To get more to the point, Etta and Otto and Russell and James is story about people and relationships and the things we need to do in order to survive and find happiness. Etta and Otta have been married for many years when Otto wakes up one morning and finds a note from Etta saying that she needs to see the ocean and has decided to walk there. Etta and Otto live in Saskatchewan and Etta has chosen Halifax as her preferred destination. Russell is Otto’s best friend and adopted brother who lives next door and they are both affected by Etta’s absence since she has been with them since they became men.

The story follows Etta as she makes her way across Canada and Otto and Russell and they try to figure out how to live and adapt without her. We simultaneously get flashbacks to their shared childhood and the historical events that defined their lives. And like Hooper states in the synopsis, if you want to find out who James is, you’ll have to read the book.

Everything about this book is subtle, but I love how Hooper creates this sense of atmosphere throughout her novels. Do I believe Etta could survive walking across Canada without even a sleeping bag or a raincoat? Absolutely not, but Hooper makes her stories seem incredibly simple, while at the same time being very complex. I know I don’t understand even half of the nuances and themes of this story, but I like thinking about them. I love that Hooper never tells us how to feel, or even really how her characters feel. Everything is left up to our interpretation.

Like Our Homesick Songs, this is a look at the people who leave and the people who stay and how both of those journeys are impacted by that decision. Is home a place or is it the people who make up that place? How do our experiences and memories shape us?

I originally gave this book 4 stars, but after reflecting and writing this review I’m bumping it up to 4.5. I’m filled with such melancholy thinking about this book and there was honestly nothing I disliked about it. Our Homesick Songs is still my favourite of the two, but this one was wonderful too.

Nine Perfect Strangers

Rating: ⭐
Author: Liane Moriarty
Genres: Fiction, Mystery
Pub date: Nov. 2019 (read Jan. 2019)

Nine Perfect Strangers was totally different than what I was expecting. For some reason I thought this was going to be a murder mystery (spoiler, it’s not), not really sure why, so the plot ended up taking me totally by surprise, but in a good way.

Nine Perfect Strangers centers around Tranquillum House, a spa/resort where people come for all sorts of reasons, but primarily to make some kind of change, whether it’s with their body, personal habits, or even to save their relationship. The resort was founded by russian immigrant, Masha, who had a near death experience when she suffered a heart attack from overwork and neglecting her health, and found a new outlook on life that centered around personal health and wellbeing. Nine people have assembled at Tranquillum for a 10 day retreat.

Tranquillum House is known for having slightly revolutionary practices; no electronics are permitted at the spa and there are mandatory fasts, juice cleanses, and periods of silence throughout the 10 day retreat. However, many people swear that Tranquillum House gave them a whole new outlook on life, so most of the guests are willing to give it a try for 10 days. This group of guests includes a washed up romance novelist and footballer, a tired mom, a divorce lawyer, a couple trying to save their marriage, and a family trying to heal after the death of their son/brother. They are mostly optimistic about the retreat; however, what these strangers don’t know is that Tranquillum House has decided to try a new protocol for this retreat and that they will be physically and emotionally tested over the course of their ten day visit.

I’ve read two other books by Liane Moriarty: Big Little Lies and The Husband’s Secret, and I must say, she is really good at tackling tough subjects with humour. Her characters are all pretty humourous in this book in how ridiculous they are. They all grapple with some pretty serious issues, yet still provide a lot of comic relief. I’m still not quite sure what to make of the plot. It was a really different concept and it was actually quite shocking where Moriarty took the plot in the seond half of the book.

What I liked most about the book though was the theme, which centered around the idea of change. All of the guests decide to attend the retreat because they are seeking some kind of change in their lives, and the resort itself was founded because of the change that Masha underwent after her near death experience. Masha experienced a huge change in her life and really wants to help others to change their lives for the better. However, what she begins to realize is that it’s easy to help people change over a 10 day period, but that it is immensely difficult for her guests to make permanent changes once they return to their old lives. It raises the question of whether people really can change.

It really is a roller coaster ride because some of Tranquillum House’s practices seem really out there and it’s easy to dismiss them as “hippy-dippy nonsense”. But the further you read, you start to question yourself because it’s hard to deny that the practices actually do seem to work. However, when the plot takes a drastic turn around the half way point, you see the characters starting to revert back to their original tendencies, which again begs the question of whether change is truly possible. I liked the book because even though the resort seems to be a bit of a farce and I think a lot of the people would only be temporarily changed by the experience, it’s hard to deny by the end of the novel that the guests have been changed by their time at Tranquillum, just in ways you wouldn’t necessarily expect.

I don’t want to say any more because I don’t want to ruin the plot and I think it is actually best to go into this book blind if possible. It is quite different from the other work I’ve read by Moriarty, but it did make me think and reflect and I think it is an interesting commentary on the human ability to change, so I did quite like it. It also does a great job at developing each of the nine characters and I was really impressed with how each them grew throughout the novel and I enjoyed getting each of their back stories. I read this for my January book club, so I’m really interested to hear what the rest of my book club thought because I can see how some people might not like this book.

Swing Time

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Zadie Smith
Genres: Fiction
Pub date: Nov. 2016 (read Nov. 2018)

Okay, so despite it taking me literally months to read this book (super rare for me), I actually did really like it. This was my first Zadie Smith book and I can see why people tend to have a love/hate relationship with her. I don’t think this is one of her more well liked books, so I kind of wish I started with a different one, but oh well.

I actually really liked this story and style of writing, it’s just not a book you feel inclined to pick up again once you put it down. It wasn’t that I struggled to read it, there were several times I sat down and read 50 pages or more in one sitting, but whenever I would put it down, I would inevitably decide to start something else and this one always took the back-burner. It’s an interesting story, but at 450 pages, I just think it’s a bit too long for what was actually said.

But let’s get into it. Swing Time is the story of two black girls growing up in London. They both love to dance and have always been somewhat separated from their peers. They have a tumultuous childhood together. Tracee is bold and daring, thinking herself better than those around her, while the narrator struggles to really know who she is. They have a falling out after high school, but despite never really seeing each other again, their lives have a marked impact on each other.

Tracee goes on to become a dancer, while our narrator is hired to work as a personal assistant to a famous singer and dancer named Aimee. The narrator was a huge fan of Aimee’s as a child, but struggles with some of her decisions when becoming her PA. Aimee is very involved in international development and builds and supports a school in Africa, but she is blind to the privileges of her race and appropriates culture on more than one occasion. For Aimee, the world is all about her own indulgence and the narrator struggles with being a black woman in this environment,

There was so much going on in this book, and I can’t pretend like a lot of it wasn’t over my head. I was never really sure where Zadie Smith was going with the story and themes, but she includes some really thoughtful social criticisms in the book. I really enjoyed these thoughts and reading about them from the narrators experience, but they often just seemed disjointed. The whole format of the story is a bit odd. The timeline jumps around a lot, which wasn’t overly confusing, but I think it’s part of what made it a hard book to pick up again. There was never really much tension in the story. You wonder what happened with Tracee, but the story never seems to be working towards anything, so it was hard to have the motivation to pick it up again.

But the most interesting part of this book for me was the fact that the narrator doesn’t have a name! I’m not sure at what point I realized she didn’t have a name, but I kept thinking maybe I just missed it and it was driving me crazy not being able to remember what it was. But no, I’m not crazy, she does not have a name. Zadie Smith why doesn’t she have a name?!?! I feel like there’s some deep reason why she remains nameless throughout, but I do not know it and I want to know why! I wonder if it’s because her life was never really about her. The first half of her life was about Tracee and the second part of her life was about Aimee. Even when she moves on from both of these women, she is still caught up about Tracee. She seemed to have very little sense of self or character and her life totally revolved around those around her. We learn about her friends, family, and co-workers. but we never really learn that much about her and what makes her tick. She is very much an observer of the world around her and to an extent, an observer of her own life.

It’s an interesting relationship between the narrator and Tracee because I think that both are actually jealous of the other. In the end, neither girl is very successful, but I think the narrator has always been a little jealous of Tracee’s confidence and abilities, while I think Tracee is jealous of the narrator’s stable family life and parental relationships. Tracee is good at manipulating the world around her to get what she wants, and even though she is able to manipulate the narrator to an extent, it never really gets her what she wants. She is still a brown girl who has been abandoned by her father and faces substantial systemic oppression to success.

Like I said, this book includes a lot of social commentary on race and privilege, which was what I really like about it. I’ve worked overseas in international development and seen how disorganized development work can be. Everyone has their own agenda and for some reason people don’t think they need to converse with government agencies when working in poor countries. Everyone has an idea of what’s needed to “save Africa” or “eliminate poverty” and they’re all working to their own ends. Without coordinated efforts, systems break down and can actually be left in worse conditions than in which they started. So I understood a lot of the narrator’s frustrations with Aimee’s work and her development agency. Aimee very much embraced the white saviour narrative and it was f-ing annoying. Although, to be honest, almost everything about Aimee was annoying. She was so blind to her privilege. Tracee was annoying too, but at least she didn’t pretend to be anything but what she was.

Overall I would give this 3.5 stars. I quite liked it, but it was just too long and it lacked enough tension to keep me reading.