One woman is on the run, another is reported missing. How are the connected, and what was is about their lives they so desperately wanted to escape?Read More
A mother’s life is turned upside down when a masked intruder threatens the safety of her children and the stability of her home.Read More
Ruth Ware’s fifth suspense novel is just as riveting and atmospheric as its predecessors. A young woman finds herself caught up in a murder trial when one of the children she has been hired to nanny ends up dead, turning her life - and the lives of her employers - completely upside down.Read More
What is there to say about Lauren Groff that hasn’t already been said? She’s a phenom, a master, one of Barack Obama’s favourite authors. From my compulsive consumption of book-related podcasts I’ve also learned that she’s undeniably likeable. Her prose will pierce through the fog of your everyday life and make you feel more than mildly inadequate about your own writing abilities, but her stories will wrap you up and captivate you in a way that few things in life can.
If you couldn’t already tell, I’m a pretty big fan.
For me, 2019 is the year of Lauren Groff. I’ in the midst of an effort to read all of her books, and, having completed The Monsters of Templeton, am now more than halfway through. Her most recent book, a short story collection called Florida, and her bestselling novel Fates & Furies have been two of my favourite books of the year. Both books revolve around characters so intricately woven they felt completely real. Groff’s specialty is in writing about inherently flawed but intensely relatable people, and The Monsters of Templeton is full of them.
The Monsters of Templeton is a novel about Groff’s hometown of Cooperstown, New York, a place with a bizarre and intriguing history. In a brief introductory chapter, Groff says, “My Templeton is to Cooperstown as a shadow is to the tree that spawned it; an outline that takes texture from the ground it falls on.” While it features aspects of fantasy, history and drama, The Monsters of Templeton is ultimately a character study of a town and its unique inhabitants, and in many ways reads like a love story to the place Groff grew up.
Wilhemina “Willie” Upton arrives in her hometown heartbroken after the decline of an already-precarious romantic relationship. Uncertain about her future and the status of her yet-to-be-completed Ph.D. she moves back in with her eccentric mother and becomes reabsorbed in the strange flow of life in Templeton, New York. Coinciding with her reappearance is the discovery of a dead monster that’s evidently been living in the town’s lake for centuries. In an attempt to distract herself from the downfalls of her current existence, Willie decides to spend the summer researching her ancestors – the very men and women who famously founded Templeton – and hopes to discover her father’s identity along the way. What unfolds is a story of magic, mystery, and absolute mayhem told from the perspectives of the interesting and utterly absurd relatives Willie is learning about.
The Monsters of Templeton is a novel about family and the feeling of coming home. Over the course of the summer, Willie struggles between being drawn back to her university life – where she feels free of the scrutiny she faces in Templeton – and her genuine love for her hometown. Templeton is geographically beautiful, but the people of the town – including a quirky librarian, a group of middle-aged joggers, and Willie’s own peculiar mother – at times make it an uncomfortable place to live, particularly for an ambitious young woman.
In the end The Monsters of Templeton is, like everything Groff does, an incredibly complex and spellbinding story, and one would probably have failed if not for its authors’ talent and abilities. It’s a perfect summer read for anyone looking to branch out from their normal genres. It will make you think a little harder about how the place you come from has shaped you into who you are.
True crime and a library history collide in Susan Orlean’s masterpiece of creative nonfiction The Library Book, a work that so deftly defies categorization it’s almost impossible to comprehensively review.
The Library Book is the story of the Los Angeles Public Library fire in 1986, but expands beyond that to explore the role of libraries in society. Orlean investigates the fire - suspected to be arson - and explains exactly what happens when books burn, whether from a criminal act, in an accident, or as an act of war. Laced into this narrative are anecdotes from her own childhood and adult life, offering a glimpse into why she feels so passionate about libraries and the path that led her to write about the L.A. fire.
Orlean, whose book The Orchid Thief was also a runaway bestseller and adapted into a film starring Meryl Streep, is one of the best descriptive writers alive. There’s no experience, thought or abstract concept she can’t whittle down into a beautifully strung together sentence. The beauty of her storytelling comes not only from the originality and obscurity of the stories she chooses to tell, but how she uses such lyrical prose to tell them. Even the most dense historical passages in The Library Book read like a gripping thriller or time-period drama. Even the most apprehensive source becomes a detailed, riveting character under the influence of Orlean’s pen.
While I try to avoid using the first person too often in my reviews, I’ve found - over approximately 8 hours of attempting to write a review for this book - that it can’t be avoided in this specific case. There’s something about The Library Book that was so personal and relatable to me that it’s impossible to explain it without talking about how it made me feel. And it made me feel quite a lot of things. The first being nostalgia. Nostalgia for family trips to the library when I was a kid, but more so nostalgia for a time when I didn’t even exist yet - for a time when the Library of Alexandria was still standing, or before the Nazi’s burned so many Jewish and German books, a time when libraries were just starting to change education and literacy across the world.
The Library Book will take you a long time to read, and not because you’re not invested in the story, but because so many of the facts and anecdotes will make you snap your head up, approach the person closest to you, and say something along the lines of “you have GOT to hear this.” From stories about the squabbles of Los Angeles librarians to tales of water-logged books being stored in a frozen fish plant, The Library Book will captivate your imagination and make you desperate to visit your local library.
I’m not the only person who’s felt so strongly about this wonderful book. To provide a metric its popularity, I’ll share a little story of my own experiences with my public library - a place I may as well live in at this point considering how frequently I visit. I often reserve books I’m interested in reading online through the Halifax library system. If there’s more than one person interested in reading the book, I join a queue of people and wait my turn. Quite a lot of the books I read have no queue at all, either because they’re older or because they’re slightly more obscure. But some books have queue’s that take the better part of a year to get through. Before getting in line for The Library Book, the longest queue I’d joined had been 46 readers. When I joined the queue for this book, months after it had been published, I was number 215 in line. For reference, Michelle Obama’s memoir had 300 readers in line before me when I joined the list.
Perhaps it’s a slightly lazy thing for a reviewer to say, but you really need to read this book for yourself. There’s so much more I could say about it, but I doubt it would do justice to this magnificent piece of work.
Maid author Stephanie Land always planned to be a writer. A talented, keen and passionate young woman, her life seemed like it was on an upward trajectory. But just before she was planning to move to Montana to earn a creative writing degree, things took a surprising turn when she discovered she was pregnant. Grappling with the reality of becoming a mother while also dealing with a crumbling relationship and having to put her dreams on hold, Land found herself falling into a cycle of poverty, hardship and incredibly hard work.
Over the course of several years Land survived off of irregular work as a house cleaner and by applying for and using government programs for housing and food. Her memoir Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive chronicles her experiences of poverty, and explores what low-incomes individuals and families face when they try to seek help. Land’s story is heart wrenching at times, especially when she describes the humiliating situations she faced because of her financial status. Land constantly dealt with passive aggressive comments from strangers at the grocery store about her food stamps and snarky comments from her family about being greedy or lazy. Maid is also a deeply frustrating read at times. Land’s decisions - particularly in terms of romantic relationships - can seem absurd at times. And perhaps that’s the point. It’s easy to judge her choices and emotions when you’ve never been in her position.
It would be easy to call Land’s tale a Cinderella Story. She started with nothing and is now a bestselling author. But Maid isn’t about overcoming obstacles in pursuit of success - it’s about having to function and live under the constant weight of poverty, disparity and judgment. Land doesn’t live her life constantly looking for the silver lining or secure in the knowledge that some day things will be better. In fact, quite a lot of her life is spent grappling with the reality that things may not get better. Though she makes no secret of her desire for more, Land often doesn’t have the privilege of focusing on and dreaming about the future.
Maid is bleak. It’s a gritty, raw story that’s incredibly uncomfortable to read at times. But there are also lovely moments. Land shares both the brutal and the beautiful stories of being a young mother. Her relationship with her daughter and her will to provide for her drives the story, as does her constant - though sometimes back-burnered - desire to pursue writing. Throughout the story it’s a comfort to know that Land has achieved her goals and that she has come out of her experiences and produced a piece of work so important and well executed.
Where memoirs like Educated by Tara Westover and The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls are filled with bizarre religious fervour and fantastical adventure, Maid is more grounded in everyday reality. The power of Land’s story isn’t in its originality or abnormality, but rather from how common her experiences are, and how widespread the judgment and prejudice she faces is. While Maid is of course a memoir, it’s also a poignant commentary on wealth inequality in America and a searing critique of the way society fails to acknowledge the difficulty of being poor. Land won’t let her readers look away from the way things really are, and she does her country a great service by so beautifully laying out the things so many people choose to ignore.
Halle Butler’s cynical protagonist spends a lot of time Googling ways to improve her life. She spends money she doesn’t have on new clothes, yoga studio memberships, and home décor, secure in the knowledge that someday things will be better – maybe right after she gets that promotion she’s anticipating.Read More
Two families fight to break a multi-generational cycle of violence in Mary Beth Keane’s latest novel Ask Again, Yes, a book about tragedy, recovery and hope in the most difficult of situations.Read More
A poor, black Southern tobacco farmer shows up at a hospital with an aggressive form of cervical cancer in the 1950s. A biopsy of cells is taken from her cervix. Today, well over half a century later, those cells are still alive and replicating, and have becomes one of the most important scientific discoveries in history. Replicas of those cells have been used to study polio, in vitro fertilization, cloning, gene mapping and more, and have contributed to some of the most ground-breaking biological studies ever done. The woman those cells came from died, and for many decades her life passed into obscurity, almost forgotten by all those but her immediate family. Her name was Henrietta Lacks, and she may have been entirely forgotten had it not been for the dedication of her daughter and a very determined journalist.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is – and I say this with little knowledge on the subject – one of the greatest science books of all time. You may be wondering how I, a self-described science ignoramus, could possibly be qualified to classify any book as “one of the greatest science books of all time.” But it’s may status as a non-sciency person that makes my opinion so important, because it shows that this book was able to reach across a void of knowledge, education and understanding and pull me into the complex and ever-changing world of scientific discovery. In a time when vaccines and climate change are being widely questioned by the general public, it is even more important that journalists find ways to bridge the gap between people with deep, scientific knowledge of health and the natural world and those of us who don’t share that same knowledge.
Many journalists dream of coming across a story like the one Rebecca Skloot tells in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. It’s got all of the components of an incredible piece of journalism: compelling characters, timeliness, data. Most importantly, no one had ever told the whole story before. But what becomes clear over the course of the almost 300-age non-fiction book is that the story of Henrietta Lacks hadn’t been completely unknown until Skloot came along. In fact, many people had known who Henrietta was, and instead of shining a light on her life and contribution to science, they swept her identity and history under the rug.
Henrietta Lacks, as a poor black woman, was largely erased from history. The scientists and doctors and researchers who benefitted so greatly from her cells almost never acknowledged where they came from. Many people profited financially from Henrietta’s cells, and yet her family, who have dealt with an array of multi-generational problems like poverty, racism and health problems, never saw any of those benefits themselves. Henrietta’s story raises ethical and philosophical and moral questions that linger today. Rebecca Skloot does a magnificent job of laying out not only the dilemmas Henrietta’s story so starkly exposes, but also the humanity at the core of the problems.
The relationship Skloot forms with Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah Lacks, grounds the story, drawing the reader in and keeping them focused even throughout lengthy explanations of cell replication and other biological phenomena (which are incredibly interesting, detailed and pertinent to the story). The pair are working towards a common goal, but often finds themselves at odds because of their vastly different backgrounds and motivations.
The real triumph of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is that it serves as reminder that behind every scientific or medical discovery is a person - or a number of people - who had to endure hardship and suffering. Skloot has finally given Henrietta Lacks and her family the credit and recognition, and most importantly the understanding of their loved ones’ experience they so deserve.
Severance truly is an office novel for the modern age. Only in the 21st century could the end of the world be even more boring than being alive.Read More