Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Read: 16 November, 2018

Knowing that the boat would sink, the slow build (perhaps about 70% of the book) was anxiety inducing. Larson alternates between the Lusitania (stories of the boat itself, or the domestic everyday lives of its passengers) and U-20 (primarily its captain and movements, but also a little history on what submarines were like in the first World War). It’s like a slow-motion dance between predator and prey, and, knowing how it would all end, I was still watching, through fingers, as it plays out.

In the end, however, the boat must sink. I was listening on audiobook while driving to work when it came to the story of a little boy who saw a woman giving birth in the water, and was haunted by the possibility that it had been his own mother – a heavily pregnant woman who died with the sinking. I pulled into the parking lot at work with tears streaming down my face.

Larson does a good job of focusing in on each little tragedy during the sinking – many of people we’ve come to know over the course of the book. It’s heartbreaking and terrifying. Leading up to that awful day, I found the stories of the individuals involved (passengers and crew of the Lusitania, as well as Schwieger, captain of the U-20) very compelling. There’s a good cross-section of gender, class, and career, giving a well-rounded picture of what every day domestic life would have looked like around the beginning of World War I.

I was particularly interesting in the history of these early submarines – before so much of the technology (such as sonar!) was ready for such a ship. It really did revolutionise naval warfare, and Larson spends some time on the high-speed armsrace (of both technology and tactics) that these new ships forced in.

I Can’t Think Straight by Shamim Sarif

Read: 13 September, 2018

Romance isn’t my normal genre, but a book about a Christian Palestinian woman from Lebanon falling in love with a Muslim British Indian woman? I mean, how could I pass something like that up?

I was a little disappointed that, for a romance book, this had almost no romance in it. Tala and Leyla are ostensibly in love, but they spend no time together. They get into a “debate” when they first meet, which consists entirely of Tala being a prat and needling at Leyla about her beliefs. They go on a date that we barely get to see, spending more time on a summary after the fact than in the moment. Then they go on a weekend trip where they have sex for the first time and everything else that happens is off-stage. For the rest of the book, Tala and Leyla are separated (mostly in entirely different countries) and not interacting at all.

We are told that they are in love, but we don’t get to see them in love. If they aren’t fighting, Tala is stalking Leyla while Leyla tries to avoid her. They have very little chemistry, at least as far as I could tell.

Then again, it would be hard for them to have chemistry when they barely have personalities. Both seem to act, feel, and say whatever the plot needs them to, and, when we do get personal details about them, those details are frustratingly superficial. Leyla is a writer, but a writer of what? Tala loves her two published stories, but what are they about? What does she like about them? What do they tell Tala about who Leyla is as a person?

Tala, for her part, is starting a business to sell candles and things manufactured in Lebanon. She talks about how much of a difference this could make to the lives of the people making her products, but then it’s dropped and she never really seems to care about the poor after that. She never seems to have any particular interest in the things she sells, either. She never shows some of her wares off to Leyla, never tells her about the sweet old widow who can afford to care for her grandson now that she’s picked up candle-making, never brings Leyla to meet a family making her products.

The story is more about Tala and Leyla’s families. They are mostly one-dimensional, but they are interestingly so. There’s a good story to be had in how each individual family member reacts to Tala and Leyla’s relationship. Some of it has made it onto the page, but the story ends quickly after the women come out, so we don’t get to spend too much time in each family member’s head.

My last complaint is that the book really could have used an extra round of editing. There are some questionable word choices, as well as some muddled timelines (the example the pops immediately to mind is in chapter 5: Ali calls Leyla on Sunday night, then Leyla and Tala go on a date the next evening, and then Leyla goes shopping with her mom the day after that, a Monday). These are silly issues that shouldn’t have made it into final print.

All that said, the book is competently written. This was in no danger of going into my Did Not Finish pile! I was interested from start to finish, and I wanted to see where it was going. I liked most of the characters, I just felt that Leyla and Tala were short-changed. Ideally, this book would have been 100 pages longer, with a nice big section near the beginning where Leyla and Tala see each other and talk, and where we get a chance to understand why they love each other.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

Read: 9 September, 2018

A little while ago, I had friends over for dinner and one casually mentioned The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society as a favourite. So, of course, I made a mental note and tracked down information about the book and now have read it. Because my love-language is apparently knowing people’s favourite books, even if I never talk to them about the books or even mention that I know.

Amusingly, I mentioned to the same group of friends that I had started reading it, and her wife said, “That sounds familiar.” Clearly, she has a different love-language.

I loved this book. I could complain about it being a bit saccharine, but, honestly, I needed that to recover from the sprinklings of horror. I truly enjoyed Juliet’s humour and getting to revel in goodness for a while. That goodness never seemed particularly naive anyway, given the backdrop of World War II with its “Todt workers” and malnutrition and fascist policing.

The format worked really well. There are moments where characters are telling each other things that they already know for the reader’s benefit, but I was enjoying it all so much that I hardly noticed.

I was a little worried that the epistolary format would get dropped once Juliet actually went to Guernsey, but the authors had cleverly established the characters of Sidney, Sophia, and Susan before that point, so format could continue seamlessly.

There is romance, but it’s understated. Front and centre are the friendships, the history, and the piecing together the missing Elizabeth McKenna’s story. The “will they, won’t they” could have gotten annoying, especially as the two characters refuse to actually talk to one another in favour of making wild assumptions, but it’s so far in the background that it only feels joyful when they finally come together.

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Read: 5 September, 2018

This book is so many things. It’s the story of growing up during a war, of living under fundamentalism, of the immigrant experience, or family, of being punk in the ’80s – all together at the same time.

Satrapi’s consistent mouthiness is a joy to read. I also appreciated her vulnerability as she tells us about the time she falsely accused someone else of a crime to avoid being accused herself, or the time she bullied a boy for his father’s political activities. She talks about feeling ashamed of wanting sympathy for how hard it was for her to spend her teens along in Vienna while her family and childhood friends were living in a warzone.

The artwork is perfect. The black-on-white is deceptively simplistic, while conveying a great amount of expression.

Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol

Read: 3 September, 2018

I really enjoyed this. It’s your normal coming-of-age story about going to camp for the first time and having trouble adjusting, but with the special twist of coming from an immigrant experience. Vera is a first generation Russian immigrant whose language is half in/half out, going through all those painful third culture kid problems.

I really enjoyed being able to share this with my son, who is a second generation immigrant. It’s hard to explain what being a third culture kid is like, but books like these really help.

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

Read: 1 September, 2018

I’d be really interested to find out how Pratchett and Gaiman collaborated on this book, because the narrative is a perfect meshing of their two styles. I recognised so much that was distinctively Pratchett or distinctively Gaiman, but all blended together to make a fantastic amalgam style with both footnote humour and mythic humour.

Some of the jokes haven’t aged too well, particularly where gender is concerned. The book also has a very ’90s/Fern Gully sort of environmental message that dates it rather unmistakably.

Other than that, though, this was wonderful.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Read: 15 July, 2018

Set in the early part of the 19th century, this book does a magnificent job of capturing the narrative style and tone of books from that period. Of course, that means that it’s a bit of a slog – at around 800 pages, this book makes a great door stopper, and the pacing is very slow.

However, I found that listening to it on audiobook was perfect. I got to sit back, relax, and absorb the atmosphere of the period and worldbuilding – which is what most of this book is. There is a rescue/defeat the baddy near the end, but it’s not particularly climactic. For the most part, the book is about creating an alternate 19th century England with plausible magic.

I adored the worldbuilding. Clarke did a really good job of blending magic into the real world world history. Best of all, she did so in such a very British way – with a magic system that draws from both the common fairy stories as well as the more “noble” pursuit of alchemy.

The world felt complex and alive, and the slowness of the narrative gives the reader a change to settle into it. I do, however, recommend the audiobook, as the book is heavy enough to put wrists at risk.

In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides

Read: 24 June, 2018

This is a truly harrowing story of exploration and survival in the frozen north. I’m somewhat familiar with Franklin’s expedition, but I only knew a rough outline of the Jeanette’s voyage. Given that, I found that Sides did an excellent job letting the various personalities on board come through.

I was impressed by how positively superhuman some of these people were, and how long they managed to carry those who weren’t. I was also horrified by just how terrible the crew’s luck seemed to be – over and over again, it seemed like Murphy’s Law ruled the ship.

I found the book to take a little while to pick up. The beginning provides important background, but perhaps too much of it all at once. There were a few times where I found myself getting lost in the list of names of people I hadn’t started to form associations with. Once the ship was under way, however, the cast narrowed and the individual personalities started to stand out, and I found the second half much more enjoyable.

Matilda by Roald Dahl

Read: 7 June, 2018

Overall, my seven-year-old and I found this to be an enjoyable read, though it lacked focus. The “main plot” doesn’t get started until about halfway through, and Matilda suddenly gets magical powers (the first hint of the supernatural) just a few chapters from the end.

At the same time, the chapters don’t quite work for this to be an episodic type of story. Several stories span more than one chapter, and chapter lengths vary quite a bit – which meant that some nights we read long enough for my throat to get sore, while other nights we barely seemed to read at all.

But for all that, the story is amusing, and I loved Matilda’s “get even” attitude. Both my kid and I thoroughly enjoyed the over-the-top baddies.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Read: 15 May, 2018

I picked this book up without knowing a thing about it, except that I was somehow under the impression that it was autobiographical. In fact, I put off reading it for a while for that exact reason – I almost always enjoy Gaiman’s writings, but I wasn’t particularly interested in the author himself.

Some weird stuff started happening, but it was all fairly plausible. And I figured it was just some writerly hyperbole.

Then some really weird stuff started happening, and only then did I figure out that I was reading fiction. So that was a pretty fun trip!

On the story itself, I loved the realism of it – how well the mythology was integrated into the “real world” of the story. I would have liked a more active protagonist, and I think that the Hempstocks did a bit too much infodumping (two problems that could have solved each other, if the protagonist could have used all his reading about mythology to figure out some of what was going on), but it’s a small complaint.

Overall, this is a lovely little story with some surprisingly dark turns.