If We Were Villains

If We Were Villains

M.L. Rio

“Actors are by nature volatile – alchemic creatures composed of incendiary elements, emotions and ego and envy. Heat them up, stir them together, and sometimes you get gold. Sometimes disaster.”

Reading this novel was a very interesting experience. I picked up If We Were Villains while browsing a bookstore and, uncharacteristically, decided to buy it without knowing anything about the author and without having heard anything about the book. From the synopsis on the back it sounded similar to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, which I really enjoyed, so I thought I would give it a try.

If We Were Villains tells the story of seven drama students at an elite arts college whose on-stage rivalries and temptations slowly pervade their own lives. If I am completely honest, when I started reading this book it seemed like a worse version of The Secret History with characters who were more immature and annoying than those from the similar story. While these two novels do have many things in common and seem at times almost too similar, there are aspects of If We Were Villains that made me continue to read instead of dismissing it as a second version of the same story. Most significantly, I came to be really involved with the characters and their varied relationships.

I was also initially bothered by the narrative style in which M.L. Rio integrates Shakespearean verse into the students’ conversations and also breaks up the dialogue with names and lines rather than with quotation marks. As I got farther into the book I found that this became less and less noticeable and I wasn’t bothered by the flow of sometimes very obscure dialogue. I will say that I sometimes skimmed over the larger sections of dialogue that were written in verse – probably a byproduct of growing to dislike Shakespeare through terrible high school teachers. That being said, within the first 100 pages I was completely pulled into the story and ended up reading the book very quickly.

The sense of claustrophobia that this novel gave me was very chilling. The longer this story developed in the same spaces with the same characters, the smaller the world of the novel began to feel and the more I felt like I needed a breath of fresh air. This was a really remarkable experience where Rio was able to mimic the seclusion these characters must have been feeling as the plot unfolds and allow her readers to feel that same unease and confinement.

The plot of this novel was intriguing to me for the way it always seemed like it was about to end. Right from the beginning of the novel, the reader learns that some tragedy occurred at the college among these seven students and as the story starts to be told by Oliver, the narrator and one of the students, it seems like the action is imminent. This is true, but then there continue to be more twists and turns and I was never quite sure when the big reveal would be made, or whether the last big “aha moment” I had read had in fact been the big reveal. I think this sense of anticipation and suspense was what kept me interested in the story despite the very blunt foreshadowing throughout the novel.

I think, more than anything, this is the story of relationships defined by ambiguity. The students, who are together continually for four years of drama schooling, in which vulnerability is unavoidable, share intense but strange intimacies where lines are blurred and feelings are confused. The emotion Rio depicts these characters feeling is immense, being described in the story as a combination of the emotions of the characters they are playing and their own already complicated emotions. I finished this story with a sense of emotional exhaustion and a love for several characters who I might not otherwise have related to. I started off hating this book, but I made that decision much too quickly and dismissively. I’m glad I continued reading because I ended up thoroughly enjoying the characters and the dark, beautiful, lives that they live.

 

Story: 7/10

Writing: 6/10

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Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Katherine Boo

“Only in detention had it occurred to him that drudge labor in an urban armpit like Annawadi might be considered freedom.”

I sat in front of a blank screen trying to write this review for several days before realizing that this is really the kind of book you just have to read for yourself. This book is the most complex portrayal of poverty I have ever experienced.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a work of non-fiction but it reads like a novel. I found myself repeatedly forgetting that the characters and events in this book are real. This book follows the entwined lives of several families living in a large slum in Mumbai, called Annawadi. As the narrative develops, one family’s desire for a better life leads to ruin and destitute when a kitchen renovation escalates into disaster.

This book is based on Katherine Boo’s careful and thorough research but the people are individuals in a narrative rather than interviewees. The individuals in this book are so likeable it is incredibly painful to remember that this story is their reality. More than anything I want an update on the individuals we meet in this book: what has happened to them? Have they prospered? Are they still alive?

Katherine Boo often introduces the individuals in an offhand and judgmental way through the eyes of other people from Annawadi. Then, in later chapters, the characters we judge and dismiss become the narrator and we are pulled into their world to realize just how wrong we were about their situations. This is a very thwarting experience and it has made me much more conscious of the snap-judgments I might make about individuals I see in my own neighbourhood in Toronto.

Boo’s book is crowded with characters and seems loud, unruly and sometimes downright chaotic, just like the slum in which it takes place. This book is also dense with information about Mumbai’s political, economic and social situation but the material is presented in such a readable way that I almost didn’t realize how much I was learning while reading. What is most striking to me is the amount of loss, hopelessness and despair among the young people in Annawadi who see the new modern, technological world but have no means to enter it and instead are left behind. I am also interested in Boo’s apparent priority of sharing the experience of women and children over that of adult men.

Another fascinating aspect of this book is its focus on sewage. In the literal sense, Boo’s narrators often speak of the sewage lake that borders Annawadi and the effects this lake has on the garbage collection that is central to the slum’s “economy.” I also saw Katherine Boo’s frequent return to this image as an emphasis on a more figurative moral sewage. The corruption and dishonesty both inside and around Annawadi showed not only the rich damning the poor but the poor damning their own neighbours for any chance to put food on their own tables. Katherine Boo’s book displays a corruption so inherent in everyday life that it feels casual and unproblematic. Boo unflinchingly shows the ways this corruption tears apart those individuals who are already in the deepest grips of poverty and hardship.

As I’m sure you have noticed by now this review has jumped around quite a bit. I think this is a book I will need to read again to have anything more intelligent to say about it. The story Katherine Boo brings us in Beyond the Beautiful Forevers is so jarring that it is maybe too much to process all at once. What has stuck with me most of all is the way nothing worked to lift these individuals out of poverty – not education, not ambition, not existing skills and knowledge, not even corruption or crime. Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a book about poverty that is incredibly rich – in detail, in insight and in heart. This is an incredibly important story and Katherine Boo has presented it in such a way that I cannot believe Behind the Beautiful Forevers hasn’t become required reading.

Writing: 10/10

The Bookshop on the Corner

The Bookshop on the Corner

Jenny Colgan

“Just do something. You might make a mistake, then you can fix it. But if you do nothing, you can’t fix anything. And your life might turn out full of regrets.”

As soon as I heard about this book I knew I had to read it. It is about a book-loving girl who loses her job at a library and decides to open her own mobile bookshop in rural Scotland. How lovely does that sound? I read this novel in one sitting, on a plane home from Mexico to Toronto, and I found it utterly charming and endearing.

I know it might not generally be a good thing when your favourite part of a novel is its introduction but that was the case for this book. I usually skip authors’ notes but, for whatever reason, I felt inclined to read this one and it was like a warm hug from one reader to another. I immediately felt like Jenny Colgan understood me and it made the story she was about to tell even more personal. This was a very nice touch.

Reading this novel was a bit like catching up with an old friend. Maybe it was because I read it all at once while I was trapped on a plane coming home from a tropical paradise to a snow-covered suburb, but the story was like a warm hug. Sure, there were aspects of the plot that I found a bit outlandish and over the top (I promise not to give them away here), but Nina was so relatable that it didn’t bother me at all.

I loved seeing the characters start to love reading thanks to Nina’s mobile bookshop. As a book lover, I know how much books can help us understand ourselves and those around us a little bit better so it was nice to see this portrayed so lovingly in this novel. I also loved the intertwining relationships between Nina, her best friend Surinder and her old coworker Griffin, and the contrast they had to Nina’s relationships with the people she meets in Kirrinfief: especially the sexist and grumpy man Wullie, from whom Nina purchases her van, Alisdair, Edwin and Hugh from down at the pub, her moody landlord Lennox and the charming pair of train conductors Joe and Marek.

One thing I didn’t really like about this story was the plot of Ainslee and Ben. I thought that the entire thread was a bit out of place in the novel, but the ending felt especially abrupt and unfitting. I didn’t like that the entire novel ended with this subplot rather than with Nina.

One of my favourite aspects of this novel was its descriptions of the parties Nina attended while she was in Scotland. The portrayals were so detailed it felt like I was there dancing and I was a bit sad when I realized I was actually just sitting on an airplane. Any story that can make me forget I am in a tiny seat with no leg room is a welcomed story! I also appreciated the way Colgan contrasted these parties with Nina’s experience when she goes back to visit her old home, Birmingham, and goes out for the night with her friends Surinder and Griffin. The way Nina comes alive and has a blast in Scotland made her night out in the city seem even more cringe-worthy than it normally is to me as someone who would almost always rather be at home curled up with Netflix, or a really great book.

Although I have only spent one day in Scotland (and it was Edinburgh, not the countryside), this novel made me want to get off the plane from Mexico and immediately hop on the next one to Scotland. It is a pretty big feat for a novel to make you miss a place you have never even visited, but Jenny Colgan succeeded with The Bookshop on the Corner.

Story: 7/10

Writing: 7/10

Carry Me

Carry Me

Peter Behrens

“Of course there really is no country of dreams that also exists outside the dreams.”

I read Peter Behrens’ Law of Dreams several years ago and thoroughly enjoyed the story and the writing. When The O’Briens was published I was excited to read another of Behrens’ novels but the story fell short for me and I ended up abandoning it before finishing. When I read about Carry Me I was tentative to try it but I am so glad I did. This novel has such a nice pace to both the writing and to the story. This story also has an exceptionally satisfying ending – something that I find to be incredibly rare in the novels I choose to read.

With a narrative that moves back and forth in time, Carry Me follows Billy, his parents and Karin, the daughter of close family friends and employers, through Europe during the two World Wars. Throughout the story Billy and Karin both dream of escaping their war-torn lives to freedom, space and open air in El Llano; a place they believe to exist only in the American novels they read. One of the most striking aspects of this story is the way the narrative moves seamlessly between the First and Second World Wars. Because Billy narrates the entire story as it happened it the past, it is not always immediately evident which era he is describing and it gives the story a bit of a disorienting and dream-like state at several points where I was unsure how old the characters were or where the story was taking place. I really enjoyed the effect this had on the narrative.

I also really appreciated Billy’s narrative style. Like I said, Billy was re-telling the story of his childhood and young adulthood. Frequently throughout the story, Billy directly addresses the readers, for example, when he tells us that he won’t explain the nitty-gritty family details because he doesn’t want to bore us with genealogy, when he promises to be honest, or when he explains his choice to incorporate letters, telegrams and diary entries because he wants us to be able to hear the real voices of the characters. Perhaps most interesting is the way Billy readily admits his own unreliability as a narrator – something I can’t remember ever having come across in other novels I have read.

The plot of this novel is unusual to me in the way that it takes place during the Wars but it is not a story about the wars. I loved the human aspect of this story: the development of Billy from childhood through to adulthood, his descriptions of Karin as a character and the various writings pulled from Karin’s journal. Through Billy and Karin we see a very interesting development in the perception and experience of the wars at two different points in their lives.

While the novel is not really about the wars themselves, the story does take place during the first half of the twentieth century in Europe, so the wars are central to the lives of this story’s characters. Behrens paints an absolutely gut-wrenching portrait of characters – who have long been friends and allies to Billy and Karin – turning to Nazism and causing a wave of fear and disbelief to sweep through these two families. The novel also shows Billy struggle with his own guilt about being a cowardly bystander when he witnesses terrible acts in his own city. These underlying currents of fear, paranoia, guilt, grief and worry created a beautiful tension in this story that brought me right into the minds of these characters.

In all, Carry Me feels vast while simultaneously seeming like very little happens. The calmness and precision of Behrens’ writing allow an incredibly tumultuous time to be brought to life in a way that is not anxiety-provoking, but that instead allows readers into the thoughts and choices of characters who are trying to make their way in a world ravaged by war. In this novel Behrens also illuminates the complex nature of love by exploring not only the ways our families and closest friends can support and protect us but also the ways that, despite their best intentions, they can trap and endanger us.

 

Story: 7/10

Writing: 8/10

The Muse

The Muse

Jessie Burton

“I would have preferred not to have to choose between writing and loving; because for me, they were often the same thing.”

Jessie Burton is an incredible storyteller. The Muse enchanted me from the very beginning and I could not stop reading. It is fast paced and interesting from start to finish and I would recommend it highly.

The Muse follows two stories: that of Odelle Bastien in 1967 London and that of Olive Schloss in 1936 Arazuelo, Spain. Odelle is an immigrant from Trinidad who is trying to make her way as a writer and Olive is an artist – the daughter of a prominent art dealer – who knows that being a woman holds her back from realizing her full potential. Slowly, these stories come closer and closer together in an invigorating narrative of love, ambition, secrecy and vengeance.

The plot of this novel is ingenious. The narrative moves at the perfect pace to give enough detail while still pushing forward into the lives of the characters and their stories. Burton adds little twists that you completely anticipate to make you feel like you’re a part of the story, only to write a sentence two pages later that causes a completely gut-wrenching realization of the real twist. This doesn’t just happen once; Burton is relentless in her originality and surprise and I could not get enough.

I was fascinated by the portrayal of language in this novel. For one thing, Odelle’s narration and conversations with employers are in perfect British English, but her conversations with her best friend Cynthia are often in a vernacular that presumably comes from her Trinidadian heritage. More often than not, I find that when characters both narrate and speak in a novel, the language used is usually congruent. I thought this choice was an interesting and subtle way to show the way Odelle maintains her own native dialect while still trying to fit into the prejudiced world to which she moved. Similarly, at the beginning of Olive’s story, there is an emphasis on which language the characters are speaking: Olive’s native English or Isaac and Teresa’s native Spanish. I found myself wondering why Burton chose to specify whether these characters were speaking their first or second language and why this was important to the story or to the words they were saying.

I was also very interested in the historical aspect of this novel, especially in Olive’s story, which takes place in 1936 during the Spanish Revolution. This is a point of history about which I had heard little before I read this novel and I found myself Googling extensively for information about what was going on around these characters (especially Isaac and Teresa). I always enjoy novels that lead me to learn more about other times and places, so this was a welcomed piece of the story.

If you have seen or heard about this book and weren’t sure whether it was for you, I would urge you to give it a try. Burton’s plot is one of the most original and exciting I have come across in a long time. With undercurrents of race, politics and gender, I found so much in this story to think about and to enjoy. The characters are intricate, stimulating and extremely vivid. They tell a story that surprised me at every single turn. My only regret about this book is how long it sat on my bookshelf, waiting to be read.

 

Story: 10/10

Writing: 10/10

Behind the Blog: Meet the Blogger Series- Katie from Chickadee Book Reviews

Yesterday I had the pleasure of being a featured book blogger on Sam’s incredible blog, Clues and Reviews (cluesandreviews@wordpress.com). Thanks so much for welcoming me into this community!

Clues and Reviews

Ever wonder about the person behind the blog?  I mentioned back in January (here) that I would be starting a Meet the Blogger series.  This series will feature some of my favourite bloggers as we go behind the scenes and have them answer the questions!

Next up is Katie from Chickadee Book Reviews!

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Katie is a fellow Canadian book blogger who is new to the scene!  You know that I feel strongly about Canadian content coming to my blog so I was so excited to find another Canadian blogger to feature in this series!

Keep reading to find out what Katie had to say when she took her turn in the ‘hot seat”!

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A Far Cry from Kensington

A Far Cry from Kensington

Muriel Spark

“I enjoy a puritanical and moralistic nature; it is my happy element to judge between right and wrong regardless of what I might actually do.”

I read Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington over the course of a day at the beach and it was a perfect beach read. This is not a story that is likely to stay with me for very long but it was entertaining and charming all the same.

A Far Cry from Kensington is the story of Mrs. Hawkins, a young literary editor who describes a prominent colleague and aspiring novelist as a “pisseur de copie” who “urinates frightful prose.” When she refuses to retract her opinion, she suffers the loss of two jobs and a dear friend.

This novel struck me as being the literary equivalent of a British television sitcom. Spark’s writing is clever, witty, poised and at times deeply funny. This story of Mrs. Hawkins reads the way a good friend might share a story with you. It is conversational, unassuming and intimate in style, which was enjoyable.

Based on the blurb from the back of the book I was a bit surprised by the plot of the story. There was definitely a movement towards the mystery genre and Mrs. Hawkins and her housemates find themselves navigating the fragile lines of friendship, trust, suspicion and intrigue. I thought this was quite an interesting side to the story and definitely added more depth to the narrative. One of my issues with this novel is the way the story was resolved. I saw a lot of hinting towards the truth but I don’t think I really grasped the conclusion of the episode and was a bit confused as to the exact roles each of the characters played in the tragedy that strikes Mrs. Hawkins and her housemates.

I really enjoyed the characters in this book. It felt to me that these were all people I had met before or might bump into on the street. Mrs. Hawkins enemy, Hector Bartlett (the “pisseur de copie”) is an egotistical, manipulative bully who uses those around him for his own personal gain. There is Milly, the landlord of Mrs. Hawkins’ flat, who is a devout Catholic and a close friend to all of her borders. There is the always-fighting couple who lives next door, there is young and spoiled Isobel, who calls her father every single day. There is the medical student William, Kate, the young nurse, the young couple Basil and Eva, and the Polish seamstress Wanda. There are also numerous characters from Mrs. Hawkins’ workplaces but my favourite is Patrick, whose wife is somehow convinced that Mrs. Hawkins is seducing and stealing her husband away. These characters are not novel or complex, but they are familiar and homey in a way that creates a sense of family and comfort.

Overall, I enjoyed this book as a quick read to entertain me in the sunshine on a noisy and distracting beach. I wouldn’t recommend it if you are looking for something with a lot of substance but, as a quick and amusing read, this won’t disappoint.

 

Story: 6/10

Writing: 7/10