Book Review: Our Homesick Songs by Emma Hooper

36373586*I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.*

Title: Our Homesick Songs

Author: Emma Hooper

Publisher: Hamish Hamilton Canada

Publication Date: August 7, 2018

ISBN 9780735232723

Synopsis from Goodreads:
The Connor family is one of the few still left in their idyllic fishing village, Big Running, Newfoundland; after the fish mysteriously disappeared, most families had no choice but to relocate and find work elsewhere. Aidan and Martha Connor now spend alternate months of the year working at an energy site up north to support their children, Cora and Finn. But soon the family fears they’ll have to leave Big Running for good. And as the months go on, plagued by romantic temptations new and old, the emotional distance between the once blissful Aidan and Martha only widens.
Between his accordion lessons and reading up on Big Running’s local flora and fauna, eleven-year-old Finn Connor develops an obsession with solving the mystery of the missing fish. Aided by his reclusive music instructor Mrs. Callaghan, Finn thinks he may have discovered a way to find the fish, and in turn, save the only home he’s ever known. While Finn schemes, his sister Cora spends her days decorating the abandoned houses in Big Running with global flair–the baker’s home becomes Italy; the mailman’s, Britain. But it’s clear she’s desperate for a bigger life beyond the shores of her small town. As the streets of Big Running continue to empty Cora takes matters–and her family’s shared destinies–into her own hands.

Our Homesick Songs is a beautiful story about a town torn apart by poverty when the fish population is decimated. The jobs are only available out in Alberta and so slowly but surely the families move away. All except the Connor family, at least a few of them. The children, Finn and Cora stay home in Newfoundland as their parents alternate travelling back and forth to work. Finn has a stubborn hope that the fish will return and that everything will go back to normal. This is a tale of a family just trying to get by and in this experience, they come close to losing everything, but end up gaining everything.

This book is full of beauty–beauty in stories and in songs. The community and this family are built upon these artful traditions. The songs and stories are an essential undercurrent through the whole book, tying the characters together no matter where they are or what time they’re in. The songs are their history and define them as a people, no matter where they end up. Their stories bring them together in times of trial and connect one generation to the next. Our Homesick Songs is so full of life, history, and tradition. It’s rich with hope and highlights the interconnectivity of children to their parents, people to their community, and a community to it’s past, present, and future. This theme runs deep throughout this story and brings the characters together, even when circumstances try to tear them apart.

This story is one that I think many Canadians will relate to. It speaks to true events as the fishing industry out East dwindled and families were forced out of their homes to work in a place so antithetical to everything they’d known. The camps of Northern Alberta differ so greatly from the coasts of Newfoundland and the open ocean. However, this is truly a story of what families do for survival. Although families were driven from their homes, their culture and their art is not something that could ever be taken from them. This is the beauty of culture and of resiliency. People are able to find hope, even when conditions are bleak.

Hooper combines history and art into one amazing novel.  She writes a family that is so tangible that they feel incredibly real. Their story is common, but Hooper makes it lyrical. She takes something tragic and finds the spark of hope in it. From the little world that Cora creates from coloured paper, to the songs that Finn sings out on the water, from past to present with an undying belief in something greater or even magical, Hooper conveys true human experience. This book brings characters together and draws a community back from the edge of vanishing completely, all driven by an unwavering belief of a boy who loves his world unwaveringly. There is something wonderful to be learned from Hooper’s tale. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did.

Happy reading!


Book Review: Clock Dance by Anne Tyler

36645972*I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.*

Title: Clock Dance

Author: Anne Tyler

Publisher: Bond Street Books

Publication Date: July 10, 2018

ISBN: 9780385691598

Synopsis from Goodreads:
Willa Drake can count on one hand the defining moments of her life. In 1967, she is a schoolgirl coping with her mother’s sudden disappearance. In 1977, she is a college coed considering a marriage proposal. In 1997, she is a young widow trying to piece her life back together. And in 2017, she yearns to be a grandmother, yet the prospect is dimming. So, when Willa receives a phone call from a stranger, telling her that her son’s ex-girlfriend has been shot, she drops everything and flies across the country to Baltimore. The impulsive decision to look after this woman and her nine-year-old daughter will lead Willa into uncharted territory–surrounded by eccentric neighbours, plunged into the rituals that make a community a family, and forced to find solace in unexpected places. 

I remember reading Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread a few years ago and although I enjoyed it, I wasn’t totally wow-ed by it. However, my experience reading Clock Dance was totally different. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, from beautiful front cover to the intricate and sometimes heart-breaking story within. This is the story of Willa Drake, from her young life, well into her older age. Willa’s life is full of intense and profound moments, but through it all she is a calm and steady force. Willa’s relationships often seem tenuous though, which makes me question how steady she really is.

Even after reading this book I really feel as though I don’t know Willa very well. I feel like there’s so much of her life missing, however I feel like we’re meant to get the sense that she spent her life living for others. First her sister, then her husband, her sons, and then her second husband. This book takes us through her quiet moments of self-discovery as an unorthodox situation leads her to make a life-altering decision for herself. Willa’s transformation is so quiet and steady–it’s hardly noticeable. It doesn’t come without loss, but late into her life, she’s experienced so much love and loss, that at this point, the change is welcome to her. This story leaves the reader with a sense of hope, knowing that Willa is taking this moment for herself to do something that truly fulfills her and brings her joy.

Willa is a full and robust character in the moments of her life that we, the readers, get to witness. She is full of so much caring and empathy, it comes to a fault. She can often neglect relationships that have been important to her in favour of something or someone that she feels is of greater need. It may be viewed as selfishness, tied up in selflessness. Willa can only give so much of herself and she must pick and choose where that effort goes. She chooses to focus her efforts in the places and people that bring her more reward, but in doing so, she takes charge of her life. I think a little selfishness is necessary for her to grow and to understand herself. It enables her to experience a transformation after a life of giving.

In the end, I found this book to be really beautiful. It’s a story that is seemingly simply, but the relationships, the characters, and the dialogue are so intricate and so realistic. Tyler writes life so elegantly. Her novel speaks to human nature and behaviour, thus her characters and her story as so relatable and accessible. This book was so easy to read and it has so much to offer. I hope you enjoy!

Book review: Sea Prayer by Khaled Hosseini

38664775*I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.*

Title: Sea Prayer

Author: Khaled Hosseini

Publisher: Viking Books

Publication Date: September 18, 2018

ISBN: 9780735236783

Synopsis from Goodreads:
A short, powerful, illustrated book written by beloved novelist Khaled Hosseini in response to the current refugee crisis, Sea Prayer is composed in the form of a letter, from a father to his son, on the eve of their journey. Watching over his sleeping son, the father reflects on the dangerous sea-crossing that lies before them. It is also a vivid portrait of their life in Homs, Syria, before the war, and of that city’s swift transformation from a home into a deadly war zone. Impelled to write this story by the haunting image of young Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy whose body washed upon the beach in Turkey in September 2015, Hosseini hopes to pay tribute to the millions of families, like Kurdi’s, who have been splintered and forced from home by war and persecution, and he will donate author proceeds from this book to the UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) and The Khaled Hosseini Foundation to help fund lifesaving relief efforts to help refugees around the globe. 

It’s been a long while since a book has moved me so easily to tears, but this illustrated story inspired by the young boy whose body washed up on a beach in Turkey, conveys through art the intense struggle of the refugees fleeing Syria in search of safety. Illustrated by Dan Williams in incredible watercolour, Sea Prayer, moves from a beautiful and vibrant portrait of a pre-war Syria fields, markets, and food–a place where people of many faiths coexist and respect one another–through the rise of darkness and war. The tones change from such colour, to oppressive greys and browns devoid of life and hope.

This epistolary story, from a father to a son, tells the stark truth of this family’s life. The father, like any father, wants only the best for his son. This story is desperate and regretful, a prayer almost, hoping for life, but fearing death. It shows the deep and unwavering faith that children place in their parents and how parents bring joy to their children, shielding them as best they can from the horrors of the world. Through word and stunning visuals, Hosseini and Williams jointly share a tale that is to relevant, honest, and raw. They share absolute truth. It is a story that we all need to read and understand.

I would highly recommend this story. It’s short–a picture book–so it’s an incredibly quick read, but the emotions it brings with it are surprising and fierce. It’s an intensely moving story, but as Hosseini impressed us with The Kite Runner and A Thousands Splendid Suns, so too did he impress me with Sea Prayer.

Book review: The Waiter by Matias Faldbakken

38657796*I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.*

Title: The Waiter

Author Matias Faldbakken

Translator: Alice Menzies

Publisher: Gallery Books/Scout Press

Publication Date: October 9, 2018

ISBN: 9781501197529

Synopsis from Goodreads:
In a centuries-old European restaurant called The Hills, a middle-aged waiter takes pride in the unchangeable aspects of his job: the well-worn uniform, the ragged but solid tablecloths, and the regular diners. Some are there daily, like Graham “Le Gris”—also known as The Pig—and his dignified group of aesthetes; the slightly more free-spirited drinking company around Tom Sellers; and the closest one can get to personal friends of the waiter, Edgar and his young daughter, Anna. In this universe unto itself, there is scarcely any contact between the tables…until a beautiful and well-groomed young woman walks through the door and upsets the delicate balance of the restaurant and all it has come to represent.

I’m sad to say that I did not enjoy Faldbakken’s The Waiter. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what this book is about. It fell very flat and was full of two-dimensional characters whose purposes I am not certain about. The story is told from the perspective of a waiter who takes great pride in his job. He is able to execute his roll in the dining room with precision, but keeps a very formal relationship established between himself and the patrons. Beyond that, the story really lost me. It seems to be more of a fly-on-the-wall scenario, observing the inner workings of the customers at this restaurant, with no real plot to move this story along. The characters are flat, with no real personality or relate-ability.

This story did remind me a lot of a Food in Victorian Literature course that I took in my undergrad. This course was a fascinating study on the meaning of food within literature, indicating wealth, poverty, excess, happiness, etiquette, status, and so much more. We did a study on gastronomy and changing trends in the serving of food. If I were to really do an in depth study of the food in this book, perhaps I could glean more meaning, but I still feel as though the lack of authenticity and connection with the characters would still leave me wanting more.

I feel particularly disappointed in this book because I was so enthralled by the cover and with the description. It really sounded like a story that was going to be right up my alley. My expectations were high and they were sadly not met. I was going to call this one a DNF, but I really wanted to give it a change. In the end, it really wasn’t a story for me.

Book Review: Women Talking by Miriam Toews

39172103.jpg*I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.*

Title: Women Talking

Author: Miriam Toews

Publisher: Knopf Canada

Publication Date: August 21, 2018

ISBN: 9780735273962

Synopsis from Goodreads:

Based on actual events that happened between 2005 and 2009 in a remote Mennonite community where more than 100 girls and women were drugged unconscious and assaulted in the night by what they were told (by the men of the colony) were “ghosts” or “demons,” Miriam Toews’ bold and affecting novel Women Talking is an imagined response to these real events. The novel takes place over forty-eight hours, as eight women gather in secret in a neighbour’s barn while the men are in a nearby town posting bail for the attackers. They have come together to debate, on behalf of all the women and children in the community, whether to stay or leave before the men return. Taking minutes is the one man trusted and invited by the women to witness the conversation–a former outcast whose own surprising story is revealed as the women speak.

Women Talking is a tough and heavy read of a novel, but it highlights the very real struggle that exists for women in some cultures and living situations today. In Women Talking, the main characters–who are also all victims of a heinous and ongoing sexual crime–do not have a voice. They are illiterate and uneducated, not by their own choosing, but by the circumstances and the laws of their community  They are, perhaps for the first time in their life, called to a position of autonomy in order to make a decision that affects not only them, but their children, grandchildren, and generations to follow them. These women lived in a patriarchal, conservative Mennonite community.

This story is based on real life events of the repeated rape of women and girls in an isolated Mennonite community. These women were attacked in their homes by those they trusted most. They were told that these violent acts against them were God’s punishment for their sins. They were told that it was simply ghosts or demons. They were also told that because these acts happened to them when they were unconscious, that they were not in need of counselling or therapy because they didn’t really experience them. All of these things were told to the women by the men that they’d always known and trusted.

Now in the aftermath of these horrid acts, these women are forced to make a decision. They can stay and do nothing, forgiving the men so that they can all achieve salvation and join God in Heaven. They can stay and fight, which stands in direct opposition to their faith’s law of pacifism. Or they can leave and face a modern world that they do not know with nothing but their wits and one another to aid them. These women struggle with their incredible belief in God and their desire to live piously, while at the same time protecting themselves and their children. They want to uplift God and uphold their faith, yet find safety, refuge, and knowledge for themselves. This story is especially prevalent as we experience the #metoo movement. These women have no voice at all–even their story must be told by a man because these women cannot read nor right. Although August does his best to record what the women are saying, his story is not without the male gaze as he interrupts with his own observations, musings, and interjections.

This story is absolutely incredible. It’s well written, it’s poignant, and it’s thoughtful. August is an excellent narrator, although his position as the narrator is inherently flawed. This story is heart-breaking. It’ll ignite a fury in your heart and open your soul to these women. These female characters are so intelligent, yet they have not been given the space to really grow and take ownership of their lives until now. Miriam takes them on an incredible journey as they discuss their situation together.

I would highly recommend this book. It’s so relevant in our world today. Miriam opened my eyes to a world I knew little about, but it’s a world full of women who are not so different from myself, who deserve to be heard, and loved, and understood.