Iain Reid’s debut novel is suspenseful and smart

20170430_121112What I read

I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid

What it’s about

An unnamed narrator and her boyfriend, Jake, have been dating for a short time, but things are going well. They are driving out to Jake’s parents’ farm for dinner and to make introductions. From the very beginning, the woman tells us she’s having doubts, that she’s thinking of ending things. But she’ll at least make this trip and see if it changes how she feels.

The story takes place over one night, covering the drive to the farm, the dinner, and the beginning of the ride back. But when they take a detour on their way home, the road trip takes a terrifying turn.

This novel explores themes of individuality and connection with others. It asks questions about how relationships may change us and the benefits and harm that come with solitude. Are we our best selves when we connect with other people? Or can we only truly understand ourselves when we are alone?

Why I picked it up

I read Iain Reid’s other two books–both are memoirs–before he published I’m Thinking of Ending Things. His first book, One Bird’s Choice, tells the story of Reid moving back in with his parents when he was in his 20s. I loved this book and lent it to both of my parents. They enjoyed the book, too.

When I heard that Reid had published his debut novel and that it was a thriller, I thought it might make a good birthday gift for my mom, as I know she enjoys a good thriller and because she liked Reid’s first book. She read it quickly, and lent it to me the next time I saw her.

What I liked about it

This book is filled with discussion and ideas, but it doesn’t feel heavy or weighed down. In fact, the pacing is rather quick. The narration and conversations reveal information about the woman’s past and her relationship with Jake. There was just enough detail provided to keep me hooked, to keep me wanting to know more. Eager to have it all revealed, I read the novel in one day (and I bet it would have been in one sitting if I hadn’t had to work that day).

You’ll want to read it if…

This book is perfect for fans of psychological thrillers or readers who want a suspenseful novel they can read in one sitting.

Recommended refreshments

A lemonade from Dairy Queen, just like the drinks Jake and his girlfriend pick up on their drive home.

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Exit West: a book worthy of its buzz

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What I read

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

What it’s about

Saeed and Nadia meet and fall in love while living in an unnamed city, in an unnamed country, in the midst of civil war. The couple are opposites in many ways, with Saeed being more conservative and Nadia being fiercely independent, but their differences complement each other.

As the violence in their country increases, the couple escapes by passing through a magical door. They’ve heard about these doors and know that by going through one, they will end up in another part of the world, but they won’t know where until they’ve reached the other side.

The novel is interspersed with scenes of others who are fleeing conflict via these magical doors, arriving in places unknown to them, where there is no wartime violence.

This is a story of migration, both in a geographical and in an emotional sense, of the search for a place of belonging,  for a home. It’s about how people and places change, how people can change places and how places change people.

Why I picked it up

I’d heard a lot about Exit West before I read it. I saw several reviews and noticed the title popping up on many “best new books” lists.

When books get a lot of attention, I sometimes get wrapped up in the excitement and can be disappointed by a book that couldn’t possibly live up to my unreal expectations. I thought this might happen with Exit West, and so I hesitated to read it right away.

Then I went to see Hamid discuss the book at the Toronto Reference Library. Hearing the author talk about the concepts and themes solidified my interest in reading this book, and a friend kindly lent me her copy.

What I liked about it

Saeed and Nadia are interesting characters. They are clear individuals, with their own distinct personalities and voices, but together their bond makes them a strong unit. I liked that Hamid plays with gender expectations, with Nadia the independent one living on her own, who tries to convince Saeed to have sex with her, while Saeed lives with his parents and wants to wait.

But my favourite part of this book is the way that Hamid writes. The voice of the narrator has such wonderful rhythm and pacing. The prose is filled with long sentences which are punctuated perfectly so that they wind and flow but never lose the reader. And then there are descriptions of a life in a conflict zone, which I am grateful I do not have personal experience with, but the writing here touched me as if I were looking through a window into that world.

You’ll want to read it if…

One of the reasons this book is getting so much attention is because of its timeliness. Hamid didn’t plan this, of course, as the book was written before Trump and Brexit were dominating the headlines. But this well-written story about refugees and globalization makes it a book everyone would benefit from reading right now.

However, this is also a love story. It’s the story of the relationship between Saeed and Nadia. Readers who enjoy literary fiction about romantic relationships between two characters should read this book.

This is a great novel for a single sitting. If you have an afternoon to dive deep into a book–and perhaps also have the evening available to give the story some thought–Exit West is an excellent choice.

Recommended refreshments

Chinese food, just as Saeed and Nadia shared on their first real date.

Teddy Wayne’s Loner: a gripping and disturbing read

20170125_214130What I read

Loner by Teddy Wayne

What it’s about

Loner opens with narrator David Federman arriving to study at Harvard. While David spent high school getting good grades, he doesn’t have any friends to show for those years. He has basically been invisible. But now David has the opportunity for a fresh start, a chance to reinvent himself.

When David meets Veronica, he is convinced she will be his ticket into the new world he dreams of, and he is determined to get to know her. But Veronica doesn’t end up being quite who David thinks she is.

This novel explores the troubled and troubling minds of young adults, and it’s a frightening place.

Why I picked it up

I heard about Loner near the end of 2016, when I saw it in a Kirkus Reviews “best of” list. I like stories that take place in school and/or coming-of-age tales, so the genre appealed to me, and I also like protagonists who are outsiders. I bought a copy while browsing in Book City on the Danforth one wintry afternoon.

What I liked about it

I loved the way this story builds and transforms as you read. It starts off as being funny, and while humourous moments appear as the novel progresses, the story becomes more disturbing. It’s a powerful psychological portrait of the narrator in his formative years.

On a technical level, I liked the perspective Loner is written in. Wayne chose to write using the second-person perspective. Second-person perspective is less common than first or third because it can be awkward. But I love second-person perspective when the author gets it right, and Wayne has done just that.

You’ll want to read it if…

Pick up Loner if you like books that get you inside the minds of characters and books that have you thinking about them for a while after you’ve turned the last page. But you’ll have to be okay with reading disturbing subject matter. I finished this book right before I went to bed, and I wouldn’t recommend that. I imagine it would be better to finish reading it in the daytime.

Recommended refreshments

These kids have gone away to school and are living away from home for the first time. There is plenty of drinking in dorm rooms going on. I recommend mixing some vodka and club soda, as a few of the characters do during a blackout, or just grab some cheap beer.

The portrayal of family and mental illness in Imagine Me Gone

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What I read

Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett

What it’s about

Margaret learns about John’s depression before she marries him, but it doesn’t keep her from wanting to build a life with him. They have three children, one of whom experiences another serious mental illness. Imagine Me Gone follows the family of five over several decades, with chapters alternating between the perspectives of each family member.

This novel beautifully portrays a family who not only cares about each other but who care for each other. While the story illustrates how mental illness affects a family, it also explores the love, loyalty and devotion in various relationships.

Why I picked it up

I can’t remember where I first heard about Imagine Me Gone, but I read about it several times before I stumbled across a copy in the bookstore. There was something about the white cover and the missing letters that caught my eye. Still, it took a few more bookstore visits before I bought the novel.

The subject of mental illness appealed to me, and I do enjoy books that explore familial relationships. But I hesitated because this type of subject matter is something so many writers could get wrong, and I suppose I also thought the book could be too dark. But earlier this month, I couldn’t resist its appeal and I bought a copy.

What I liked about it

Haslett’s prose is stunning. As with Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Imagine Me Gone moves at a pace that made it almost impossible for me to put down, and yet it also made me want to reread sentences or paragraphs because of the beautiful wording.

I was impressed with how Haslett managed to write about complicated subject matter and complicated feelings without making it feel complicated to read. He smartly inserts humour into the story that helps with this.

Haslett also does a great job of giving each of the family members their own distinct voice. The inner thoughts and feelings of each of the five family members is captured brilliantly.

This is such an honest book. It never felt over-written, exaggerated or pretentious. I’m so glad I picked it up.

You’ll want to read it if…

This is definitely a book for fans of literary fiction. It’s a particularly good choice if you like novels that move between perspectives of several characters. And if you enjoy stories that examine family dynamics or sibling relationships, you should read this book.

Recommended refreshments

I read most of this book on one very cold December afternoon. Part of that afternoon was spent inside a cozy cafe with a mug of hot chocolate. I highly recommend this experience for anyone reading Imagine Me Gone.

Homegoing: an impressive debut

20161111_092100What I read

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

What it’s about

Homegoing opens in Ghana in the mid-18th century and tells the stories of two half-sisters, who never meet, and follows the lineage of each sister up to present day. Each chapter serves as a window into the lives of one of the sisters’ descendants.

The book begins with a chapter for each of the sisters. Effia is forced to marry a British slaver, and Esi is sold into slavery. Subsequent chapters alternate between Effia’s and Esi’s family lines and compare and contrast the lives of the characters in Ghana and in America.

Why I picked it up

I suggested this title to my book club, and the group thought it would be a good choice, so we read it. I’m not sure where I first heard of Homegoing. I only know that I read about it online in a few different places before I suggested it to our book club. I liked the premise, of following the lineage of the sisters over time. I happily purchased a copy from my favourite bookstore.

What I liked about it

In general, I liked the structure of this book. I loved the interconnectedness of the stories, and how oftentimes the characters from past chapters would show up as secondary characters in later chapters. I liked following the families through generations, and seeing the connections between characters who never met.

But while I liked the structure, it did leave me with a couple of frustrations. At times it was hard to keep track of how the characters were connected. (A family tree at the front of the book helped with this, and I was flipping back to it quite a bit.) My other frustration was that there were times when I wanted to stay with a character or story a bit more than Gyasi allowed–not because it felt like she had moved on too quickly, but because she did such a good job with them.

The story I was most captivated with while I read the book, and that stands out to me the most now upon reflection, is the story of H., a convict worker in a coal mine in the south. But each chapter is there for a reason, addressing themes of colonization, enslavement, racism and identity, to name a few.

You’ll want to read it if…

You should read Homegoing if you like historical fiction (or history) and/or novels-in-stories. It’s also a good choice if you’re a fan of family sagas.

It’s not really a good choice if you’re looking for something light. I’m not just referring to serious themes that are addressed. There’s some work involved in keeping the characters straight. It’s also maybe not the best choice if you really want to spend time with a single character and watch them develop over time.

Recommended refreshments

Our book club talked about Homegoing with some red wine and cheese on hand. I don’t know if the refreshments had anything to do with how the meeting went, but we did have some interesting conversation. And, really, wine and cheese is often a good idea.