The Cellist of Sarajevo

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Steven Galloway
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. date: Mar. 2009 (read Dec. 2019)

It took me ages to read the Cellist of Sarajevo, but it had nothing to do with the book itself. I made the mistake of starting it right before the Goodreads Choice Awards were announced and promptly got distracted by all the awesome books that were nominated. But I made it a priority to finish before my trip to New Zealand and I ended up really liking it.

I knew the premise of the story, but I didn’t realize that the plot was split between 4 (really 3) main characters. I immediately liked the writing, but I was a little unsure of what to expect from the plot. The Cellist of Sarajevo is about the siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War. The people who were able to get out of the city are long gone and we are left with the civilians who never had the means to get out and haven’t been called to the front to fight. The city is under siege by the men in the hills, who regularly shell the city and set snipers at many of the major intersections. With so many of the city’s services destroyed, it makes daily life very difficult for the people trapped in the city. The safest place to be is indoors, but everyone is forced to venture into the city in search of food and water.

The Cellist, who is based on a real individual, is at the centre of the story, without the story actually being about him. After 22 people were killed lining up for bread, he decides to play his cello in the street for 22 days to honour each of the lives lost.

This book is the kind of subtle literary fiction that I love. There’s nothing really propelling the story – it is just average people trying to survive their every day life in a city beset by war – yet I can’t deny the impact of the storytelling. It’s not the plot that drives the story, but the resilience and tenacity of the individuals. At times it’s hard to discern the timeline of the story, but it never really matters because this book is really only a character study about the kind of choices we make during challenging times. I admire the author for his writing and exploration of the human psyche as someone who was neither in Bosnia during the siege or who has lived through a war. The plot is so simple, yet the characters inner monologues have such depth.

It’s hard to articulate the impact of the writing, but I particularly admired how Galloway wrote both Dragon and Kenan’s characters. Neither are heroes and they struggle with seemingly mundane things, but it rings so true of the long term impact of violence and how it can both make you hopeful and make you question your integrity. Dragon dreams of an escape from the city, while simultaneously acknowledging the gravitas of being where he is right now. Kenan struggles with the exhaustion of taking care of so many people and is tempted to abandon his obligations just to look after himself. War brings people down to their base instincts and needs and I really liked this study of what really matters when it comes down to it. Wonderful writing.

Grief & Loss & Love & Sex

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Lara Margaret Marjerrison
Genres: Poetry
Pub. date: Nov. 2019 (read Nov. 2019)

Woohoo! First person on goodreads to rate and review this book!

I’ve been going through a bit of a poetry phase and stumbled across this anthology in the Poetry section at Chapters. I had no idea it was a brand new release, but I liked the premise of it and decided to buy a copy. It’s only 50 pages long, so I read through it in 2 sittings.

Grief & Loss & Love & Sex is about all of the above, but mostly grief. Lara’s sister passed away by suicide and this is really her response to dealing with that grief. She includes a prologue about the book and her sister that was really moving, before getting into some of the poetry she wrote about how she was impacted and affected by her sister’s death. I really like her style of poetry. It’s not too dense to read and I like the spoken word feel of it. It has a good beat to it and I like that much of it rhymed. I feel like not that much poetry rhymes these days, which is totally fine, but I appreciate clever and well written prose.

In my opinion, most of the anthology focused on grief and loss, but Marjerrison does start exploring themes of love in the last third. Personally I didn’t find this poetry quite as engaging, but since this anthology very much reads like a personal, healing journey, I don’t think it really matters if it didn’t pull me in as much. There’s a strong emotional theme present throughout the entire anthology and I really do hope that the writing of it helped the author to heal. A great debut – very moving.

Ember and the Ice Dragons

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Heather Fawcett
Genres: Fantasy, Middle Grade
Pub. date: Oct. 1, 2019 (read Oct. 2019)

I wish I didn’t wait so long to write my review for this book because I really loved it! Heather Fawcett is killing it with her books and I’m really drawn to the settings she creates. I loved her Himalaya inspired fantasy world in Even the Darkest Stars and loved the blend of fantasy she created in Ember and the Ice Dragons.

Ember and the Ice Dragons is a middle grade fantasy series set in our world, but with magic. Ember’s adoptive father is a magician that chases storms because they are where he gets his magic from. On one adventure he discovers a baby dragon, Ember, and turns her into a human to save her life and hide her, because unfortunately the fire dragons have since been hunted to extinction.

As you might expect, Ember struggles in England because she has a tendency to randomly burst into flames and as such, is afraid to make friends. Eventually she convinces her father to ship her off to Antarctica to live with her Aunt because she is much less likely to catch fire in the cold climate. Once in Antarctica, Ember is surprised when two other children, Nisha and Moss, attempt to befriend her. She’s also enraged to discover that the ice dragons of Antarctica are also being hunted and targeted, same as the fire dragons were in England. She teams up with Nisha and Moss to take down the hunt and save the ice dragons.

Like I said, I loved the setting. Most of the book is set in Antarctica and loved reading about it. Fawcett likes to set her stories in the bitter cold outdoors and it just makes for such an enjoyable reading experience in the fall and winter. Ember is the perfect heroine – with just the right amount of spunk and vulnerability. I liked watching her come of age and finally starting to make friends and build relationships with those around her instead of constantly being afraid of being discovered. Fawcett is also good at writing perfect villains and anti-heros and I like that some of her characters are flawed, yet still good.

This read like a standalone, so I’m not sure if Fawcett is planning on expanding the world or not. I kind of hope not because I think this works well as a standalone and I want to see what other types of worlds she will dream up!

Lands of Lost Borders

Rating:
Author: Kate Harris
Genres: Non-Fiction, Memoir, Travel, Canadian
Pub. date: Jan. 2018 (read Aug. 2019)

This was a really excellent book! It wasn’t really at all what I was expecting, but Kate Harris is a wonderful writer and I ended up really liking it.

Lands of Lost Borders primarily tells the story of Kate’s almost year long bike ride across Central Asia on the “Silk Road” an ancient trade route used by Marco Polo. But Kate also shares a little of her childhood and formative university years with us as well, which surprisingly ended up being some of my favourite chapters of the whole book.

I’m not sure what I was expecting Kate’s character to be like, but so many of these travel-type memoirs are from hippie types, teens on a gap year, or people wealthy enough to be able to go on extended vacations. I don’t want to say Kate’s not a hippie, but I didn’t really think she fell into any of those categories.

Kate is a Rhodes scholar and MIT graduate whose livelong obsession with Mars drove her to become a modern day explorer. She’s incredibly smart and accomplished, but she isn’t driven by fame, money, or accolades. She’s driven by a desire to get out into the unknown and explore. She’s a wonderful writer and she had a good blend of interesting facts, philosophical thoughts, and funny anecdotes. Although I did think the story started out stronger and declined a little bit when she starts writing about the silk road. She does get a bit bogged down sometimes in the historical and scientific facts, when I would have loved a few more stories and anecdotes from her time on the silk road and what it was like day-to-day.

After finishing the book I went to Kate’s website to learn a bit more about her and discovered that she has a ton of albums from the trip on the website. I would say that photos are the one thing missing from this memoir and I wish I’d discovered them earlier because it would have been lovely to look at each country album as I progressed through the book. So if you decide to read this one, I’d recommend following along with the photos on her website.

Overall though, this was a really strong debut novel and I would definitely be interested in reading more about Kate’s adventures. This was definitely a part of the world I haven’t read very much about and I think most travellers tend to pass over the “stans” in favour of other countries like India, Thailand, and Vietnam.

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.