Volunteer Reader Review

The Ever After of Ashwin Rao by Padma Viswanathan

A fairy tale ends with “they were married and lived happily after”. The event of a wedding supposedly creates an after effect that permanently improves the lives of the participants. But in this novel, Padma Viswananathan presents another type of event that more plausibly has ever lasting consequences.

This book is partially about the Air India bombing that killed over two hundred Canadians.  The people on that airplane were either Canadian born or naturalized. After the bombing, the Canadian Prime Minister got it into his head to send a letter of condolence to the Indian government.  The characters in this novel resent not having any government condolences conveyed to them, their family members gone, their own lives forever diminished.

Viswanathan raises the question: “Who had lost what?” She writes, “No wonder they had failed, for eighteen years, to bring it to trial.” The government and the media didn’t seem to address that this event was about Canadians. When the trial was finally held, and concluded, the result was an acquittal. The person likely responsible for building the bomb was eventually sentences to nine years for perjury, only. There has always been a sense of bewilderment over the failure of our system to investigate, coherently process findings, and efficiently take this to trial. To be diligent, in other words.

The Ever After of Ashwin Rao by Padma Viswanathan

The Ever After of Ashwin Rao by Padma Viswanathan

But this novel is about much more than the details of the case, it’s about how individuals cope with the politics and results of vengeance. The author attempts to delineate the historic details of who first sinned against whom, but since none of that is knowable, the effect is more to see how a train of vengeance careens through individual’s lives, unstoppable.

Grim though the subject matter is, this novel is fascinating. The brave author takes on the persona of a middle aged man, a psychologist who lost his sister, and her children, his beloved niece and nephew in the bombing. Ashwin Rao returns to Canada for the trial, although he doesn’t expect much of an outcome.

The author has created an utterly convincing character, who is devastated, yet doggedly getting on with his own dreary life. Consumed with imaginings of how his sister and the kids must have died, he meanders through a lakeside park. “Snow on a far peak. Goose turds on the lawn. Wild rose bush at the water’s edge. Child on a blow-up alligator. Birds in the trees, those dying generations at their song.

Turgid, clay-coloured clouds-here they came. Their unpredictability was the most predictable thing about them. I rose and turned my back on the lake. Behind me a splash, as of a boy falling out of the sky. The rain began.”

Lonely and isolated, he gloms on to a family in the fictional town, Lohikarma, in British Columbia. I confess to loving this novel partly because this Lohikarma seems to represent Nelson, BC, a town quite weird in itself, worthy of being written up as a character in a novel, although the author makes Nelson a much bigger and better place than it probably is. The university is not only still going, it’s thriving, modern and fairly large and legitimately employing people! Of course, the instructors grumble among themselves about it being a bit of a backwater. As ashram peopled with the white ladies is sulwar kameez outfits rankle an Indian born female character, especially because the outfits are old fashioned, and out of style. A sly humour snakes through this entire novel, despite the empty sadness all the characters experience.

Mostly this is a book about characters:

Ashwin Rao is the sad psychologist who narrates the novel, even from the point of view of the other characters, yet always insightfully.

There is the family whom Ashwin has become infatuated with, Seth, a kindly professor who reminds him of his own father; Lakshmi, the wife, whom Ashwin finds very sexy despite her stern correctness; and Brinda the eldest daughter, whose beauty also tantalizes Ashwin, though he tells himself he is only attracted to her because she reminds him of whom his niece might have grown into, if she had lived. They are coping with Seth’s dismal colleague Venkat, who has surrounded himself with uncaged parrots after losing his wife and son to the disaster. He teaches his favourite parrot the catch phrases of ring wing Hindu nationalism, which Ashwin finds especially apt, being repeated by a parrot. The final character is Lohikarma itself, a vision of Nelson, breathtakingly beautiful, and only slightly less weird than it really is.

The plot is complex, bizarre, unpredictable and irresistible, yet always perfectly plausible, especially if you’ve ever been to Nelson. What with this latest airplane dissapearance (Malaysian Airlines Mh370), there is an added resonance that makes this novel highly recommendable.

Reviewed by Mary Oxendale Spensley

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Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

Boy, Snow, Bird falls into an unusual category for me. In my mental bookshelf, it sits amongst books that I thought were undoubtedly “good” and that also challenged me greatly: I count books like Anakana Schofield’s Malarky, Zadie Smith’s NW, and Zsuzsi Gartner’s Better Living through Plastic Explosives among these. Any yet it also falls into my own category of books that were compulsively readable, whatever that means – perhaps just that I didn’t want to put it down. It seems rare to find a book that is both very challenging and very accessible.

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

Perhaps that has something to do with the Snow White-motif at the heart of the story. Even if the story isn’t the Disney version that everyone is familiar with, there are enough familiar images and symbols that pop up and give you a sense of recognition. Or perhaps act as a signpost – ah, here is a strange fixation on mirrors, here is the evil stepmother, this is where we are in the story.

I haven’t read Helen Oyeyemi’s other books. With Boy, Snow, Bird she seems to to set out to discuss racial and sexual identity through a fairy tale lens. There is something off-kilter throughout the book, details that could only exist in a fairy tale – protagonists who don’t always show up in mirrors, for example – but perhaps that is set up to mirror the characters’ own identities and the underlying societal issues.

After reading the book, I’m hard pressed to say what it was really about. I suppose to sum it up in a sentence, I’d say that “it’s a retelling of a Snow White tale.” But it’s also something entirely different than that, something that I’ll continue thinking about for a while – a book that I may have to revisit month, years down the road, before I really understand.

As a complete aside, in one of my other Wordfest reviews this year I complained that one book was unconvincing in the letters that characters sent to each other (that they sounded inauthentic, that they were letters no one would actually write and included just to forward certain plot points). Boy, Snow, Bird, on the other hand, includes a delightful series of letters between half-sisters Snow and Bird – letters that were fully convincing, that I completely believed each character would write.

Reviewed by Kelsey Attard

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Local Customs by Audrey Thomas

I was reminded of the The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger when reading this book. The heroines of both novels were adventurous Victorian women, who embarked on voyages to exotic locations where they died. In Pullinger’s book, the heroine was a high born English lady, suffering from tuberculosis, who went to Egypt because of the salubrious climate and later died. In Local Customs, Letitia (known as Letty) Landon, an early 19th century English poet, marries the governor of Cape Coast Castle on the Gold Coast of West Africa. She only lasts eight weeks before dying, rather mysteriously.

Local Customs by Audrey Thomas

Local Customs by Audrey Thomas

The author has done meticulous research on the period and the conditions, with a great deal of foreshadowing. Thus the demise of Letty does not come as a surprise to the reader. At the same time, I found the frequent comments about her impending death somewhat excessive.

The author also focuses on a disparate group of characters. Governor George Maclean, a career diplomat, is a rather taciturn Scot. Mr. Thomas Birch Freeman, son of a freed Jamaican slave and an English woman is a righteous Wesleyan missionary intent on converting the natives. Mrs. Bailey acts as Letty’s travelling companion and helper, and Brodie Cruickshank, another Scot who is the governor of a neighbouring area becomes a good friend to Letty. These principal characters and the events, with the possible exception of Mrs. Bailey, were real.

The author evokes the oppressive heat and humid conditions of the area and I certainly felt that I was there. Living in this climate was very difficult and many Westerners didn’t survive, succumbing to malaria, dysentery, and other fevers, and often very quickly after arrival.

I would like to hear Audrey Thomas talk about the research process which she followed in writing this book, as it covers many topics. These include women and their place in the 19th century, especially those who were accomplished and bright but who were not recognized, women writers in the time period, the fate of spinster women, missionaries, religious and cultural assimilation in the British colonies, local superstition and many more.

Reviewed by Hilary Munro

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Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh

Garbageman and killer-for-hire Spademan (the name perhaps not just a shovel reference, but a possible nod to Sam Spade and Shovel Ready’s noir sensibilities) doesn’t care who you want dead or why. It’s enough that you can pay, and that you found his number.

Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh

Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh

Adam Sternbergh’s debut novel is crafted of terse prose, told mainly through the thoughts and observations of Spademan, as a simple job turns out to have unusual complications. Set against powerful enemies, Spademan navigates a near-future New York that is teetering on collapse following a dirty bomb in Times Square. Sternbergh steers clear of a wildly evolved sci-fi future, hewing instead to a city we know and vice that has its roots in noir thrillers of the past and the fears and weapons of today – a gun is a gun, a knife is a knife, and the opiates of the day are old time religion and an alternate reality that is a bare step ahead of today’s technology. To the extent that our stories are a reflection of our society, Sternbergh chooses to spare us the false comforts of violence through fictitious tools. The dangers are imminent, and the characters’ failings have their roots in today’s world. In this manner, he succeeds in reflecting today’s comfortable complacence and moral flexibility.

Ostensibly a noir-thriller with all the requisite twists, double-crosses, and a broad spectrum of matter-of-fact violence, Shovel Ready is equally a memory play; each corner of the city highlighting Spademan’s half-obliterated morals and indelible past. Escape comes for some in a bottle, and for some in a technology-based alternate reality. Memory here is a weapon, too: a weapon of reality against the easy slide into escapism. Sternbergh finds a fine balance, alternately riding the action of the plot and unearthing enough of Spademan’s past to humanize a man who describes himself as, “…more like a bullet. Just point.”

Though clearly the product of a different voice, anyone who enjoyed Todd Babiak’s Come Barbarians will relish digging into Shovel Ready.

Reviewed by Andrew Long

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For Today I Am a Boy by Kim Fu

For Today I Am a Boy is the debut novel of Kim Fu, a young writer from Vancouver and Seattle; it’s been published now in (at least) Canada, the US and Australia. It’s about Peter, a Chinese-Canadian struggling with gender identity, for he is sure he is a girl.

For Today I Am a Boy by Kim Fu

For Today I Am a Boy by Kim Fu

This feels like a timely topic, and it’s impossible to not feel empathy for Peter as he tries to make sense of his life and who he is. Peter is the only son in a family of daughters, and his strict and traditional Chinese father has definite expectations of manhood and masculinity, compounding what would be difficult for Peter even under the most supportive circumstances.

When thinking about the book, one word that kept coming back to me was “quiet”. It’s a quiet book, and I don’t mean that as a slight. Despite taking on a potentially charged and controversial topic, Fu never escalates the drama. Instead, she puts us completely inside the head of one character, and makes us understand how he sees the world, his struggles, and why he acts the way that he does. In so effectively making us empathize with Peter, Kim Fu does much to bring awareness and understanding to transgender issues, which I think is really important.

Sometimes, with a novel that is specifically “issue-driven”, I find it hard to separate the book from the issue – that is, I could think an issue is important but that the novel itself is poorly executed, but then have trouble being critical towards the novel. But this book doesn’t read as though it’s a book about an “issue”. It’s equally a book about family, about sibling, about sisterhood, about coming of age. To put it succinctly, the book itself is just really good. Quiet, compelling, and thoughtful. It’s also a surprisingly quick read.

Reviewed by Kelsey Attard

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The Forever Girl – Alexander McCall Smith

I have been wanting to read something by this author for some time now, and was excited to dive into this particular novel. I was immediately captured by the book jacket; I loved the image of the solitary female staring out at the ocean against a tropical backdrop. And when I read the synopsis of the story on the inside of the jacket and saw that the story took place in several of my favourite places — Cayman Island, Scotland and England — I knew I needed to revisit them through this author’s words.

The Forever Girl by Alexander McCall Smith

The Forever Girl by Alexander McCall Smith

The story is based on the premise that for everyone there is only one true love. McCall Smith commences the story with an adult character, Amanda, and her emotional dalliance with a family friend. While this is happening, we are introduced to Amanda’s daughter, Clover, and her best friend, James, whom we learn is the object of her desire, her raison d’etre, her one true love, etc. She develops an emotionally unhealthy attachment to the idea that he is the only one for her and tracks him incessantly trying to convince herself that is to no end. All of the characters she encounters along the way attempt to persuade her of this, but, as we all know, you can only be a sounding board of reason; the individual needs to come to that conclusion on their own and in their own time, or not.

I was carried away by the ebb and flow of the first part of the book, which took place on Cayman Island. I think the author has a pretty good sense of island dynamics, and this really shone through in his characters. I also really loved the back and forth of the story between the interactions of the adults followed by the experiences of the children. But at one point that particular mode of storytelling comes to a halt and the reader is all of a sudden mired in the angst of Clover for what seemed like forever. There are several points in the story line of the daughter where the author jumps ahead by years — e.g., “Over the years that followed…” — and there were several points as I was reading that I wished the story would jump ahead like that.

I do think the author captured the voice and tone of the younger female character, and it did make me think back to some of the heartbreak encountered growing up when you cannot see beyond that particular point in time, but it was almost too much. Perhaps I was feeling the character’s frustration, but I found myself rooting for Clover and James not to get together in the end, and I am pretty sure this is not what the author was going for. Many of the secondary characters just became lost, particularly the adults in the story. So, while the goal may have been worthwhile, it was ultimately unrewarding – as a reader, in any event. When I finished reading the book, I wondered what the point of telling this particular story was. I did not feel like I had a good sense of who most of the secondary characters really were. For a story carried on the romantic anguish of one young girl, it just did not have enough substance – it was one note for too many pages.

To me, the book is written towards an adult audience, particularly female readers. I am not sure what a male reader would get from it, as most of the characters were not that well developed. It would have been interesting to parallel the emotions of the younger male characters as opposed to including the adult relationships that just seemed to drift away in the course of telling the story. Older youth may get something from the story, particularly from some of the descriptions of the relationship between the mother and daughter, and they may be able to relate to the torment of the mono-focus of young love, but I am not sure this less-than-cautionary tale provides substantive enough input either.

Reviewed by Cathy Leipciger

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Radiance of Tomorrow by Ishmael Beah

Radiance of Tomorrow by Ishmael Beah

Radiance of Tomorrow – Ishmael Beah

This novel traces the return of two men to their home town in Sierra Leone after the civil war. The town is near a diamond mine which adds to the troubled rebuilding of the society. It is a story of disappointment rather than one of rebirth.

At its heart, this is a political novel pointing out the problems of rebuilding after war, of corporate influences and of particular societal problems in Sierra Leone and other parts of Western Africa. Anyone interested in understanding more about these challenges would be interested in this book.

The challenge with novels like this, which are more about politics and ideas, is making the writing engaging. While this novel is not a page-turner and may not be universally loved, it is an important novel in this subject matter.

While the subject matter is compelling and there is plenty of conflict in this novel, the writing style did not grab me. The book jacket describes it as being “dreamlike” but I found this style to be a barrier to fully engaging with the characters and setting. It is not that the writing is unclear, but I did find it somewhat lacking in style. While the subject matter is compelling and there is plenty of conflict, I liked it but I didn’t love it.

Reviewed by Andrew MacPherson

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